Video Review: Searching for Bobby Fischer
by Karl Bowman and Jonathan Walker

A film with substance, complexity and heart.

What is it that makes a movie great? Would it be the acting, the screenplay, the talent of the director, the photography, the production design, the music, or the theme of the movie? Most often, the movies we see stand out in one or more of these areas, but it is truly rare to find a film that is superior in all. Searching For Bobby Fischer achieves this kind of greatness because every element is well executed and seamlessly works together to support a theme with substance, complexity, and heart.

Searching For Bobby Fischer is based on a true story. Fred Waitzkin (Joe Mantegna), a New York sports writer, and wife Bonnie (Joan Allen) discover that their son, Josh (Max Pomeranc), has a gift for the game of chess. They cultivate the young boy’s talent by hiring a master chess teacher to coach him. As Josh learns the intricacies of the game, he also learns the attitudes of his teacher and parents with regard to competition and winning. He decides to become the very best chess player in the world, modeling himself after another chess prodigy, Bobby Fischer. However, Bobby Fischer is now a middle-aged recluse who seems to have disappeared. Some say he is crazy and others that he is honing his skills. Josh follows the path Bobby Fischer blazed before him, bringing him face to face with a championship title.

It would be vain to look for an element of filmmaking that is not done almost to perfection in Searching for Bobby Fischer. The acting is exquisite, the production design and music are both luscious without calling attention to themselves, the editing is creative but not cute, and the camera work and lighting look good and reveal the essential information. But what really makes us happy inside, is not the adept filmmaking, but the fact that all of these elements shed light on and add complexity to the meaning of the film.

Searching for Bobby Fischer has a very good foundation in Steven Zaillian’s screenplay. Zaillian, who has written the screenplays for many critically acclaimed and popular films including Schindler’s List, Awakenings, and A Civil Action, continues to be one of the best screenwriters in Hollywood. He has the rare ability to weave together scenes, characters, and conflict to tell a story that elevates itself to the status of art. Many movies have dialogue that is significant to the theme, but feels forced like: “If only people weren’t so bad. Then maybe this world would be a better place.” Every line in Zaillian’s script supports the theme, and yet feels real. For example, at the end of the film, one parent scolds a child as another praises a child with the same words: “I told you…” Searching is a rare example of writing that has depth, but never makes you aware of it on the surface.

Zaillian, also the film’s director, weaves black and white photographs and film footage of the real Bobby Fischer into the story. This creates the mystery of Bobby Fischer in our minds which keeps our interest high. As the movie progresses, Zaillian reveals more and more of Bobby Fischer’s story and how it applies to Josh. By the end of the film we can finally understand the poignant irony behind the film’s title.

While the story is about Josh, the chess prodigy, his parents play major roles in conveying the film’s theme. Fred gets caught up in the competition and glory of excellence, but Bonnie remains the moral center of the film. However, Zaillian avoids stereotype in drawing these characters. Past experiences influence Fred as he interacts with his son. The details of this backstory never fully come out, but the shadows help to make him a human being worthy of compassion. As the mist of notoriety cloud Fred and Josh’s teacher (Ben Kingsley), Bonnie and Josh’s mentor Vinnie (a street chess player played by Laurence Fishburne) sees more clearly what’s important. She defends Josh after he loses a major competition saying “He’s not weak, he’s decent” and has told her son “You have a good heart and that’s the most important thing in the world.” While many of the adults in the film treat the children as pawns in their own game of seeking chess trophies, Bonnie and Vinnie continue to see Josh has a boy with innocence
that needs support, not stiffening.

Searching’s theme is not a didactic lesson to be learned but a truth of life. By the end of the film, you will have learned more clearly the strength and virtue of innocence and goodness. Zaillian skillfully explores the truth that life’s success comes not in winning, but possessing a “good heart.” Significantly, Zaillian initially named this script Innocent Moves.

While the film is about a young boy and does a good job of capturing his perspective on the events, Zaillian directs the film at a slower pace than would appeal to most children. Searching doesn’t take itself too seriously, but there is substance there that cannot be hidden. Such a wonderful movie creates a couple of pitfalls in how to view it. We may expect a serious film and miss the humor, love, and joy in it. Or, equally as troubling, we might expect a light film about a young boy and spurn its pace as boring. If you avoid these pitfalls you will not be disappointed.

A couple of years ago, we sat across the table from the president of a motion picture insurance company. She had been the first woman to head the production division at a major Hollywood studio and knows the business of filmmaking inside and out. What’s more, she is a very good person: grounded, kind, and personable. She shook her head at our naivete when we mentioned we would love to make movies like Searching for Bobby Fischer. Evidently, the script bounced around Hollywood for several years as the motion picture studios saw how well-written it was, but universally passed on it. Their dilemma was how to market a film about a young boy that was not entirely for children. Finally it was made by Paramount, but disappeared at the box office, reinforcing their notions. In our view, this is a film that required a little more time to build its audience. Fortunately, video allows new audiences to discover it and promote it through word of mouth.