As a kid, I can remember that Searching for Bobby Fischer was one of my first real introductions to the world of competitive chess. As I watched the film during our school’s chess club, I wondered throughout the film what most people already knew: Where is this Bobby Fischer guy? I knew that he was considered the greatest chess player of all time and that he had been missing for decades, but it was difficult at the time for me to realize the metaphorical elements of the movie’s title. These days, it seems as though many directors are jumping on the bandwagon to create movies and documentaries about the now-deceased recluse. Pawn Sacrifice debuted recently to decent reviews as well as the excellent HBO documentary Bobby Fischer Against the World, which arrived on the scene a few years ago.
As a huge Bobby Fischer fan, I have read as many books and articles that I could find on him and have digested countless minutia about his life, his personality, and his incredible chess games. However, I was surprised to find a movie on Amazon.com called Bobby Fischer Live, which appeared to be a biopic about his life from early childhood up to his escape from Japanese authorities to refuge in Iceland. Bobby Fischer Live stars Damian Chapa as Bobby and includes a cast of actors you may never recognize again.
When I played this movie on Friday night, I was excited to sit back and experience the life of Bobby Fischer. However, that joy immediately disintegrated into uncertainty and panic when within the first few seconds of the film, Bobby’s mother Regina is shown taking her newborn child to an Adaption Agency to give him away. I cannot remember the last time that I witnessed a spelling error in the opening credits of a film…even from low budget and independent local films. For me, this set the tone for the rest of the film because my obsessive-compulsive senses immediately peaked and I wanted to see what other problems existed in this film. I will not even get into the violations of chess law and the history of Bobby’s style that exist in this film, but I will say that he is shown constantly using the Queen’s pawn opening of 1.d4, which was not his preferred method of starting a game.
Re-creating Bobby’s famous introduction to the world.
Bobby Fischer Live is a word-for-word recreation of famous interviews, press conferences, and the memories of his closest friends and chess players. The scenes are recreated perhaps as best as they could be given the apparently low budget of the film, but the middle-aged Chapa certainly does not have the charisma or the physical presence to portray an accurate portrait of Bobby Fischer. It is obvious that Chapa is doing his best to project Fischer’s violent anti-semitism, but it falls way flat of the real thing. The scenes involving the 1972 World Chess Championship were so incredibly amateurish and appeared to have been shot in a cheesy hotel ballroom, where the two champions battled it out against each other at a borrowed kitchen table on the same level as the audience. Furthermore, Boris Spassky’s wig in those scenes were most likely borrowed from the closet of an Elvis impersonator. The director made a feeble attempt to show the hostility between Spassky and Moscow as he refused the Kremlin’s calls to abandon the match for the sake of his reputation, but the conflict lacks any substance or depth. As Bobby grows beyond the 1972 championship, his famous rant against the United States after the 9/11 attacks is re-created and there are some segments of the film that take place in a Japanese detention center as he awaits extradition to the United States for violation of the U.S. embargo on Yugoslavia in 1992.
Chess films tend to have a certain level of professionalism because the creators of these films understand that chess players can be very picky about the details, but I tend to allow a wide latitude for creative interpretation in books and film. Incorrect chess board setups and wrong moves permeate Hollywood films, but the level of amateur development in this film is disgraceful to chess and to the memory of Bobby Fischer. Watching this film feels like the director and the actors read a book about Bobby Fischer one time, decided he was interesting, and decided to make a movie. I have a hard time believing that anyone involved with this movie truly understood the depth of Bobby’s genius and his inner struggles, because there is no struggle, no substance, and no reason to watch this blundering piece of garbage.