I love Steven Zaillian’s directorial debut Searching for Bobby Fischer. Zaillian has a nearly flawless track record as a big-gun Hollywood screenwriter, and his directorial efforts have also been excellent (A Civil Action and the underrated All the King’s Men), but his first film is a nearly perfect, humanistic piece that zeroes in on character in a way that few dramas ever dare, especially when considering that the film is told through the POV of a 10 year old chess prodigy, who likely has some developmental and social anxieties, if not outright disorders. I’ve been obsessed with this film for over 20 years. I viewed it in the theater at 13 years of age, it was a go-to film when it endlessly played on HBO back in the day, and throughout the years, I’ve turned to this great, unassuming, patient work at least once every 365 days on my well-worn DVD, because it reminds me of how effective a simple story can be when the acting is extra-precise and when the writing compliments the direction and vice versa. It also helps to have Conrad Hall calling the shots behind the camera; this is yet another beautifully textured and composed piece of work from one of the most legendary of cinematographers ever to grace the medium.
The plot centers around a kid named Josh who is discovered to be a chess whiz by his parents and family members. They encourage his passion and gift, which leads him to an extremely intense and strict instructor named Bruce (played with devilish charm by Ben Kingsley), who pushes young Josh both emotionally and psychologically to be the best chess talent he can be, along with never forgetting how to be a decent person along the way, without sacrificing a competitive edge. Bruce continually hypes up and compares Josh to chess great Bobby Fischer, allowing the youth to develop the idea that one day, he might be as great as that iconic yet mysterious figure. There’s also an affecting subplot between Josh and a speed-chess hustler named Vinnie, perfectly captured with great spirit and flair by Laurence Fishburne. And let’s not forget about the incredibly moving family dynamics between Josh and his parents, played by the brilliant team of Joe Mantegna and Joan Allen, both of whom radiate warmth and respect and support for their son, even under the most trying of situations and circumstances.
And over the course of the film, it’s remarkable to witness Josh become his own person, after so many others have projected what they want him to be or to become, without ever asking Josh what it is that he really wants to do. The lead performance from then eight year old Max Pomeranc is nothing short of sensational; there are adults who have been acting for years who don’t come close to the complexity that he delivered in this challenging piece of work. It’s also interesting to note that Pomeranc was an actual chess player before filming began (even appearing on a Top 100 list for his age group, according to Wikipedia), and that he never went on to act in another substantial film again. But he’ll always have his tremendous performance in this amazing film to hold close to his heart. Zaillian has long been a considerable talent, expertly balancing his artistic sensibilities with the demands of the studios who are always courting him for big adaptations or structural work. It’s not hard to see why. This is a great film and Zaillian is a class act.