Few people, to me, are more inherently fascinating than chess legend Bobby Fischer. Walking a complicated line between genius and madman, Liz Garbus' incisive documentary "Bobby Fischer Against the World" does a fine job highlighting this dichotomy. From a troubled and isolated childhood, to international superstardom, to recluse, to fugitive--Fischer's life had such a dramatic arc that ninety minutes doesn't seem quite adequate to complete a full picture. And yet, Garbus does manage to cover about fifty years in the life of the largest celebrity the chess world has ever seen. When Fischer took the stage to compete against Soviet grandmaster Boris Spassky in the 1972 World Championship, the world paid attention in astounding ways. Fischer almost single handedly turned chess into a spectator sport. But he was never very comfortable in the limelight and the pressures and expectations certainly took their toll.
The centerpiece of "Bobby Fischer Against the World" is the 1972 match. We are introduced to Fischer as a youth through archival footage and given a glimpse of his unorthodox upbringing. The piece really focuses in, however, as Fischer readies for the infamous competition. The Fischer presented is complicated, to say the least, but also a brilliant strategist. The series was riddled with drama and controversy and remains as intense and as intriguing now as it did then. The world wanted to embrace Fischer, but he just wanted to play chess without what he deemed the annoying encumbrances of fame (which was just about anything involving media coverage as far as I could tell). It's not like he was looking for anonymity, though. He wanted to be recognized as the best, he just wanted it on his own terms. Ultimately, he didn't have that much control over public opinion and was overwhelmed by the sheer madness of celebrity idolatry.
In addition to lots of stock footage and other relevant film, Garbus has interviewed a number of people that were directly involved with Fischer or contemporary chess figures that were influenced by him. Overall, the insight into Fischer is admirable. Ultimately, this is not about chess but about a man who was obsessed by the game. And it is a fair minded portrait. It is hard not to be in awe of the man's genius, but equally dismayed and disgusted by the latter segments of a very outspoken Fischer. The last third of the film deals with the decades after he won the championship. He all but quit playing chess, disappeared, resurfaced with a splash both politically and legally, and degenerated into open hostility and paranoia. It's a harrowing and unpleasant picture in the end. Bobby Fischer will probably, in many ways, always be an enigma. But this is as close to understanding the man (and not the legend) as we've come so far. A must-see for those with an interest in the topic. KGHarris, 11/11.
A History of Chess; The Fight for Fischer's Estate