Searching for Bobby Fischer
1993 Directed by Steven Zaillian. Starring Joe Mantegna, Laurence Fishburne, Joan Allen, Max Pomeranc, Ben Kingsley.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Aug. 13, 1993
Bobby Fischer is not so much a character in this movie as a metaphorical presence, a symbol of the search for excellence, the search for the ineffable, the search for the second coming of a child chess wonder. The Search for Bobby Fischer is not a detective story or a documentary about chess. It is the story of seven-year-old chess champion Josh Waitzkin. The movie is based on the boy's real-life experiences which are detailed in the biographical book of the same title by Josh's father, Fred Waitzkin. The movie's simplicity of story belies its complex underpinnings. More than a story about one boy's life experiences, the movie is a forum for concepts. The question becomes not whether this child is a chess genius but rather, whether this child should or shouldn't be encouraged, shaped, and nurtured, and if so, to what extent? What the movie details are the various emotional pulls on the boy and the role of parents and teachers in protecting the child while simultaneously strengthening his natural gift. Often there is conflict, often there is uncertainty about what course of action is best for the child's well-being. Parents want to nurture their child's innate talent but not at the risk of obliterating normal childhood; teachers want to train their pupils to win and all consequences be damned; children want to explore their talents and discover the best within themselves but not at the expense of parental love and peer friendships. The script is so very rich, and different viewers will be able to latch onto different thematic and personally meaningful aspects without sacrificing the overall blend. The script is by seasoned screenwriter Zaillian (Awakenings, Jack the Bear, The Falcon and the Snowman, and the upcoming Schindler's List) who here makes his directing debut. (Interestingly, co-producer Scott Rudin also produced Little Man Tate, Jodie Foster's recent movie about child geniuses.) The cast of Searching for Bobby Fischer is no small part of the movie's success. Each is flawlessly engaging and believable, including the young acting novice Max Pomeranc, who plays Josh. Also, the game of chess is interestingly photographed and the numerous scenes of chess pieces moving around the board are exciting, understandable and visually gripping, even for someone thoroughly unfamiliar with the game and its strategies. It helps the movie to become something more than a simple chess story, though it is that, too. Searching for Bobby Fischer is a story that sounds, on paper, like something that shouldn't succeed as a movie but when played out so remarkably by all the parties involved, it becomes an unexpected treat.