From the urban jungle (think Boaz Yakin’s hugely underrated Fresh and latterly HBO’s The Wire) to nothing less portentous than existence itself (The Seventh Seal), chess has a rich history of being used by visual storytellers to expound on the complexity of human experience. Continuing the trend with the illuminating documentary Bobby Fischer Against The World, director Liz Garbus paints a compelling, thematically rich yet sometimes frustrating portrait of the titular genius whose obsession with the sport gave way to deep psychological problems, and ultimately consigned him to a spiritual and spatial wilderness.
The film’s opening sequence sets the scene for the ambiguity which follows, as a sound collage of competing voices variously praise Fischer’s singular talent or dismiss him as aloof and arrogant. Leading up to his epic, and ultimately successful World Championship battle with the Russian master Boris Spassky, Garbus skilfully weaves the story of his troubled upbringing and family life (replete with an impressive collection of archive footage and photographs) with a range of contextual interviews with contemporaries and chess experts.
Fischer’s thrilling 1972 battle with Spassky in incongruous Iceland is the documentary’s dramatic peak, full of tension, high skill and the type of mind games that would make Kevin Keegan spontaneously combust. Like a regular king of the swingers, however, it became clear that following his vanquishing of Spassky (who retired midway through the mentally exhausting series), Fischer had reached the top and had to stop and that – amongst other things which later became apparent – was bothering him. When a new challenger emerged, Fischer, at just 29, gave up the crown and disappeared into a life of eccentricity.
Bobby Fischer Against the World is at its most fascinating when exploring the political context which framed his rise to prominence. Whilst the Soviets manufactured a plethora of chess genii and freely funded their talent, Fischer stood as a lone American, a one-man intellectual militia in the fight against Communism, who was simultaneously single-handedly responsible for the explosion in popularity of the sport in the United States and a powerful political tool (incredibly, Henry Kissinger personally telephoned the reluctant star to persuade him to play). Furthermore, the earthy quality and colour of the archive film stock and period fashion evokes gritty, political 70s thrillers The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor, whilst the socially awkward, obsessively private Fischer is hauntingly analagous to Gene Hackman’s tortured surveillance expert Harry Caul from Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece The Conversation (released two years after Fischer achieved the pinnacle of his success) – the fully-fleshed paradigm of Watergate-era paranoia.
Following the abdication of his crown, Fischer’s story becomes simultaneously sad and distancing, as the subject slips from compellingly enigmatic to entirely unfathomable and intensely dislikable. The effective, if predictable, period soundtrack of the film’s first half (‘Theme from Shaft‘, ‘Get It On’ by T-Rex) gives way to maudlin, stressful strings, and the thrilling chess matches are replaced by a bemusing account of how the Jewish Fischer turned to virulent anti-semitism and bearded, irascible crankiness. Interview footage of an exiled Fischer crowing over the 9/11 tragedy (“America got what was coming to it”) makes it extremely hard to empathize with the man, yet the detailed patchwork Garbus has woven always reminds us of the mental fragility of this once-great individual. One interviewee intriguingly suggests an almost natural progression from the near-infinite possibilities of the game of chess into the vagaries of conspiracy theory, where anything is possible and nothing can be concretely disproved.
Bobby Fischer Against The World is appropriately titled; a tough portrait of a cussed, difficult man forever butting heads with anyone who crossed his path. If it never quite gets to grips with its subject, Garbus can’t really be blamed, for it is surely an impossible task to pin down a man so evidently lost to himself. This documentary is a rewarding watch which underlines the oft-symbiotic relationship between genius and madness, and raises the spectre of depression in the context of competitive sport.
Released by Dogwoof Pictures, Bobby Fischer Against The World is showing in selected cinemas and will be released on DVD on September 12.