Every journey begins with a single move.
Sometimes a movie gets under your skin. You realize that it's not a really GREAT movie—at least not in any real conventional sense, or not in any way where typical critics would find consensus. But you love it nevertheless. YOU think it's great. It's not something that would qualify as a guilty pleasure, because it's not nearly that bad. It's a good movie, but not a great one. Still, you think it's great. Searching for Bobby Fischer is such a film. At least it is to me.
I have been waiting for this disc for a long time. When I first created our "most wanted list" many moons ago, it was largely MY most wanted list. This film made it with ease. First time Director Steve Zaillian breaks a lot of so-called "rules" of filmmaking with Searching for Bobby Fischer. Yeah, it's a bit sappy and manipulative at times, but IT WORKS. I don't know how, exactly, it just does. I guess that shouldn't come as any surprise considering Zaillian's duties prior to Searching for Bobby Fischer saw him writing scripts for The Falcon and the Snowman, Awakenings, and Schindler's List. He has since gone on to write scripts, or partial scripts for Mission Impossible, Amistad, Twister and A Civil Action. He is presently hard at work on the script for Hannibal.
When I created DVD Verdict, I decided I wanted our reviews to accomplish one thing, if nothing else. I wanted each reviewer to write so passionately about films they love, no matter how insignificant the film, that if a reader had never seen the review's subject film, that they would AT LEAST be interested enough to give it a whirl with a rental. I now have the distinct pleasure of trying to convince you of the worth of this film, because I doubt many of you have seen it. Just in case you stop reading half way down this review, I will tell you the outcome now (in case you can't guess)—buy it. Rent it. Watch it. Catch it on cable. I couldn't care less how you see it, but please make sure you see this film.
Searching for Bobby Fischer pretends to be about chess. But if you believe that, I've got some ocean view property in Rockford, Illinois to sell you. It could just as easily have tennis, or golf, or swimming as its subject sport. No. Searching for Bobby Fischer is about parents and children and relationships. It's also about a child prodigy and how the Adult World tends to gobble them up and spit them out as pre-packaged news items, ready for mass merchandising. It's about passion and having fun and knowing when to say when. It's about how adults try to re-live their failures differently through their kids. It's about a great many things, but IT IS NOT ABOUT CHESS! Chess is simply the backdrop against which our story is told.
Searching for Bobby Fischer is the true story of Josh Waitzkin (newcomer Max Pomeranc), a seven-year-old New York kid who learns to play chess by watching a bunch of street hustling speed chess players in Washington Square Park. Josh's dad Fred (Joe Mantegna—Albino Alligator, Forget Paris) is a sportswriter. Josh discovers chess rather by accident and his father doesn't even realize Josh knows how to play. But his mother (Joan Allen—Pleasantville, The Crucible) picks up on his passion right away. Once Josh's talent is discovered, Fred does what any loving father would do. He nurtures it.
Josh's tutelage begins under Vinnie (Laurence Fishburne—The Matrix, Othello) in Washington Square Park. Vinnie stokes Josh's fire by making chess fun and encourages him to take risks with his pieces. Eventually Fred hires a tutor for Josh in former competitive player Bruce Pandolfini (Ben Kingsley—Schindler's List, Gandhi). Bruce begins to rein in Josh's tendencies and eventually forbids him from playing in the park anymore. Both Bruce and Fred begin imposing their idea of competition on Josh, instilling in him a great fear—the fear of losing and of losing his father's love. Eventually, Josh must face those fears, and more, by the end of the film.
Each and every performance in Searching for Bobby Fischer is damn near perfect. Newcomer Pomeranc exudes sweetness and good-heartedness. Imagine E.T. come to life as a human, all wide-eyed and small mouthed, head and feet too big for his body. That's Max Pomeranc. He nails Josh throughout the duration of the film. Mantegna gives, in my estimation, his best performance ever, except perhaps for House of Games. Joan Allen is terrific as Bonnie Waitzkin, ever insightful and more astute and in tune with her sons needs than Fred seems to be. Ben Kingsley's Bruce Pandolfini is stoic, rigid, afraid of his own shadow it seems. Something horrific scarred him for life long ago, but the film wisely avoids this chapter of time, instead favoring the here and now. William H. Macy (Boogie Nights, Fargo) and Dan Hedaya (Shaft, Dick), both character actors at the top of their field, also make small appearances and both are wonderful.
The video presentation of Searching for Bobby Fischer is typical Paramount. Anamorphically enhanced and presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1, the picture shines in all but a few occasions. Toward the end of the film, several scenes appear to be shot with a softening filter or on different film stock from the rest of the film. The scenes appear a bit softer than the rest of the pic, but are not overly distracting. The film's colors and deep and rich and edges are not over-enhanced.
The disc includes the original audio format of Dolby Stereo, but it has also been re-mastered as a Dolby Digital 5.1 track. As is usual for me, I auditioned the original track only, as whenever possible I think this should be favored (don't get me going on Jaws, please). Some may call James Horner's score a bit sappy at times, but I think it is one of the ten best film scores I have ever heard. It is original, poignant and powerful, with his trademark usage of strings and French horns used to near perfection. Moreover, this film was scored before his apparent creative block where he felt a need to begin repeating his own themes, such as in Titanic. Taken as a whole, I think his body of work ranks right up there with the best in the business including Williams, Barry, Goldsmith and Elfman.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
My only regret with this disc is a COMPLETE lack of extras. The main menu doesn't even link off to an "extras" sub-menu. I really would have liked to hear a commentary track or two. Best of all would have been a Criterion style commentary track involving the director, Fred and Josh Waitzkin (the real thing) and all the major player in the film interwoven. There is certainly no need for special effects featurettes or anything like that, as the film itself has none. But perhaps an isolated score wouldn't have been too much trouble. Perhaps paramount has no idea how loved this film is by those that have seen it.
The film is riddled with small moments, which put a HUGE smile on your face. I don't want to give away any great moments so you'll have to discover them for yourself. Suffice it to say that director Zaillian nails a lot of moments. Personally, this film falls right next to The Princess Bride on the McGinnis-Richter Scale. Both succeed for reasons you can't quite comprehend. Both are terrific family fun with a few life lessons to be learned along the way. Both represent, in my view, the best of what moviemaking is all about.
I can't recommend this film enough, and since this is the only copy on DVD we are ever likely to see, I recommend it very highly.
Paramount is urged to research their titles a bit better in terms of which get extras included with them. Zaillian is thanked for a gem of a film, as are all the players, both large and small. Case dismissed.
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