Bobby Fischer Against the World, 2011.
Directed by Liz Garbus.
A documentary about arguably the greatest chess player of the 20th Century.
Bobby Fischer cuts an awkward figure. Even at the chessboard he seems to be in pain, sitting lopsided to the right, his torso sharply angled into the chair and his head supported by an open palm. If Bobby didn’t appear so deadly serious, you could slap a moustache above his top lip and call him Groucho.
The muscles in his face visibly tense as he attempts to smile in television interviews. In one he sweats so profusely that beads spot across his forehead.
But for all his social retardation, you can’t help but admire his passion and the way his mind whirs when observing the black and white pieces in front of him, calculating moves at a rate beyond most human comprehension. But that mind was fragile as well as formidable. And he became engulfed by the larger chess game of the era, one between the United States and the U.S.S.R. – the Cold War.
Bobby Fischer Against the World pays most attention to the period of his career that typified that international tension – the 1972 World Chess Championship against the holder, a Russian, Boris Spassky. The archive footage of the match and various news reports are accompanied with a wide range of talking heads; some big and unnecessary, like Henry Kissinger; some tiny and pivotal, like Bobby’s Icelandic bodyguard, Saemi Palsson, who would later be the subject of another documentary, Me & Bobby Fischer.
They don’t always know exactly where to look. Some stare to the right of the camera, where the interviewer is presumably seated, others glare directly down it. There’s something unnerving about a biographer looking right at you.
Jump cuts are occasionally used during these talking head shots. For a documentary filmed so conventionally, these cuts don’t quite make sense and could have been easily avoided by showing archive footage in their place, or perhaps zooming in on a still, black and white photograph – a technique with which the filmmakers appear to be obsessed.
The structure lazily avoids narrative satisfaction and is split into chapters, all with chess-pun names. Which would all be forgivable, if it weren’t for the title card Photoshop jobs. The font looks like the bastard offspring of Time New Roman and a cheap, italicised comic sans whore, and the background appears to have been sourced from typing ‘chessboard’ into Google, circa 1999.
As Bobby struggles during the 1972 World Chess Championship, the documentary intelligently splinters off to explore the tangent of his wayward mother, hippy activist Regina Fischer. This history was only hinted at previously, and worked within the narrative to ‘flashback’ to Bobby’s unconventional upbringing. It goes some way to explaining why Bobby is like he is. The rest of the documentary, however, orders itself either chronologically or mundanely.
But despite the filmmakers’ best efforts, the story of Bobby Fischer is a remarkable one, and the 1972 World Chess Championship is a historic moment in the game. The old grandmasters talking to the camera can barely withhold their admiration and awe when describing that match’s 6th game. A symphony of placid beauty, one of them eloquently described it as. At its end, even Spassky stood up and applauded. This isn’t shown, as Bobby demanded that the match was played without cameras present, but the way it’s described. Oh boy, it’s like you were there.
“Genius or madman?” is the question Bobby Fischer Against the World proposes throughout. Perhaps you need to be one to fuel the other, and Bobby certainly seemed to embody both throughout his life. But once the 1972 World Championship was over, he rapidly descended into the latter, sacrificing his genius to cult-like religious organisations and paranoid conspiracy theories. A pariah, a Jewish anti-Semite, his old, blotchy face looks like another person’s.
The story of Bobby Fischer and that remarkable match redeems what is otherwise a below-average documentary.
365 Days, 100 Films