It’s a bit odd that “Bobby Fischer Against the World,” Liz Garbus’s confident yet morose documentary about the mentally troubled 1972 world chess champion, doesn’t have any surprise moves up its sleeve. As a piece of cinema, it is curiously rote. You can predict what it will do next, and, as such, you wouldn’t want to play chess with it. Still, you’ll likely be taken in by its challenging and tragic subject.
The film, which kicks off HBO’s long, annual summer of well-curated documentary offerings on Monday nights, is certainly absorbing. For those only vaguely familiar with the competitive chess circuit (or even the game’s 1,500-year history), “Bobby Fischer Against the World” is both an easy introduction and a thorough recounting of Fischer’s improbable rise to superstardom some 40 years ago.
Many, of course, can recall the hype surrounding the 29-year-old Fischer’s defeat of Soviet champ Boris Spassky in September 1972, which created a worldwide sensation.
Fischer made chess — and chess nerds — somehow sexy, doing for the game what Evel Knievel did for dirt bikes. What’s most memorable about it was the drama that led up to the championship matches, which lasted several weeks. Fischer, already the petulant rock star of chess, used the media to tease the international chess organization, which fretted until the very last minute that he would decline to show up in Reykjavik, Iceland, to play Spassky.
By the time Fischer got there, it seemed the whole world had worked itself into a chess dither. The event was portrayed as the nonnuclear U.S.-Soviet showdown.
Garbus — an Oscar-nominated filmmaker whose previous documentaries include such subject matters as coma patients, Nazis and Louisiana’s Angola prison — began working on this film after Fischer’s death in 2008 at age 64. She has a mountain of old news footage and interviews to work with, and she sets about methodically reassessing Fischer’s lonely childhood — that of a Jewish-born Brooklyn boy who taught himself to play chess and quickly became known as an unbeatable prodigy. The government kept tabs on his working single mother, Regina, for her activism and too-lefty ways; Bobby’s obsession with chess became his connection to the world.
Garbus interviews chess experts and luminaries who knew Fischer through his youth and rise to stardom. She also interviews people who remember the media craze before the actual crazy — TV host Dick Cavett, photographer Harry Benson and Fischer’s attorney, Paul Marshall. The actual sweat of chess is most evocatively described by sports artist LeRoy Neiman, who sketched the championship matches after Fischer insisted that TV cameras be removed because they made him paranoid.
By this time, Fischer was exhibiting classic symptoms of mental illness. Even in one of his earliest TV interviews, he speculated that there’s something in the water and the TV sets are watching us and so on. Garbus gets all her chess experts to sympathize and describe how the game encourages paranoia and obsessive thinking as key strategies to winning. Did chess make Bobby insane? Did his mother?
Or was he born this way? An hour in, Garbus, at last, gets down to the meat of the story, examining Fischer’s downward spiral after he refused to defend his title in 1975.
After two decades of lying so low that even his best friends and greatest advocates didn’t know what had become of him, Fischer reemerged in the early 1990s all but sporting a tinfoil hat, bursting with conspiracy theories and anti-Semitic claptrap.
He defied U.N. sanctions and U.S. law to play Spassky once more, for money, at an exhibition match in war-torn Yugoslavia in 1992, which meant he spent the next decade fleeing an arrest warrant. Iceland, perhaps out of some nostalgia for the thrills of ’72, agreed to give him asylum in 2005.
Though a crowd cheered and welcomed Fischer at the Reykjavik airport, it was soon clear that all they’d gained was a demanding, hateful lunatic. And that was that. Though precisely played, Garbus’s film simply ends. No checkmate.
(93 minutes) Airs Monday at 9 p.m.