|Searching For Bobby Fischer|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 11 July 2000|
‘Searching for Bobby Fischer’ is a remarkably intelligent, emotional yet restrained film of a bright child buffeted by well-meaning adults who have conflicting private agendas. The title of the film refers not to an actual quest for the reclusive chess grandmaster, but to a state of mind – even while we’re encouraged to ask whether achieving such a state is desirable.
Josh Waitzkin (Max Pomeranc) is a seven-year-old with a penchant for chess. His mother accepts Josh’s gift as something that brings him pleasure, but sportswriter father Fred (Joe Mantegna) sees it as something more. As Fred eventually tells a second-grade teacher who thinks the boy isn’t spending enough time on other pursuits, "Josh is better at this than I have ever been at anything in my life." Fred becomes a chess father, and Josh’s joy in the game starts to drain away as he fears disappointing not only his parent but two very different teachers and himself.
Steven Zaillian, who wrote the screenplay for ‘Schindler’s List,’ makes his directorial debut here, showing a grasp of human nature almost as acute as his young hero’s understanding of moves. Every reaction is believable and the performances are all wonderful, none better than Mantegna’s as a good father who nevertheless lets his ego get overly caught up in his son’s fortunes. Zaillian’s script, based on a book by the real Fred Waitzkin, consistently knows whereof it speaks.
Sound actually plays a larger role than one might imagine in ‘Searching.’ In Chapter 1, we are briefly tricked into thinking we’re hearing the hooves of carriage horses in Central Park before we see that we’re actually listening to the whack of pieces thumping down on the board in a round of speed chess. Zaillian also often uses ambience and sound effects to underline a character’s perceptions, as in Chapter 2, where the heavy slap of hands on the chess players’ timer clocks becomes louder as human voices recede on the track. Chapter 3 picks up the tiny, subtle click of a piece being set gently on the board. These nuances make it all the more disconcerting when, in Chapter 8, the dialogue drops so low that the volume actually has to be increased for conversation to be heard. This seems to be a flaw in the original audio track rather than in the DVD transfer, as the ambience doesn’t drop out, but it’s certainly unfortunate. James Horner’s musical score is thankfully controlled and helpful, rather than dictating what we should feel from scene to scene; it is well-mixed with the dialogue track so that no words are ever submerged within the music.
It’s a particular shame there isn’t an audio commentary track with ‘Searching,’ as Zaillian seems like an intriguing source of insight and it would be interesting to hear which parts of the film hew to the Waitzkin family’s actual experiences and which have been invented for dramatic purposes.
This aside, ‘Searching for Bobby Fischer’ is a winning, involving story with a core of unusual decency. Think of it as a very smart sports film that substitutes quiet intensity for physical action.
If you liked this movie, you might aslo enjoy Running on Empty