Appellate Judge James A. Stewart is skilled at wordplay, but he always stumbles over the word obfuscation.
"Give me spaces to fill in and I want to fill them in."
Western fans might be expecting an epic picture about the settlement of the prairies from a quote like that. But crossword puzzle fans will know the correct answer. We're talking about Wordplay, the movie about The New York Times Crossword Puzzle Editor Will Shortz and the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament he founded (not to mention the people who fill the wild frontiers in the corner of your daily newspaper with pencilled-in letters.) You might have heard about Wordplay, which took in over three million dollars this summer. That's not quite March of the Penguins money, but it did get a following.
He's the only academically accredited enigmatologist—or puzzle creator—in the world. Shortz had the opportunity to design his own major at Indiana University. His first puzzle sale came at age 14.
You may not have heard of Shortz, but he has a loyal following. Famous Shortz fans featured here include 1996 presidential rivals Bill Clinton and Bob Dole—who were surprised by a tricky Election Day puzzle in which you could fill out the theme answer as either "CLINTON ELECTED" or "BOBDOLE ELECTED"—as well as Daily Show host Jon Stewart, Indigo Girls Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, New York Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina, and documentarian Ken Burns. These famous fans talk about their addiction to Shortz's puzzles and even show you how they habitually fold their papers. Although the DVD case features Stewart prominently, he and the other celebrities are a small part of the actual documentary.
More interestingly, you also get to meet the ordinary people involved in the crossword tournament. Al Sanders lets the moviemakers film him doing a puzzle in real time (just over two minutes), complete with split-screens a la 24. Those split screens let you follow along to an extent; you can read the clues, but it's harder to consider the whole corner when a puzzle is being solved so fast. You also meet Tyler Hinman, a college student who solves puzzles at home on the computer, and Trip Payne, who designed puzzles himself and can still hold forth on constructor topics: "I've always been intrigued by the letter Q. Some letters are just boring."
While the celebrities are on board briefly for marquee value, the enigma enthusiasts are the heart of Wordplay. Even if you're stumped by the easiest commuter crossword, you might find yourself caught up in their enthusiasm as you follow along. The movie excels at capturing their intensity, even managing to bring out the tension of the final round—in which the three top scorers puzzle out a tough crossword on stage before an audience.
Merl Reagle, a friendly rival of Shortz who creates syndicated puzzles, shows how he constructs the puzzles and explains the rules of building puzzles. Wordplay also provides background, explaining that the first newspaper crossword appeared in 1913.
Aside from the split-screens, the movie boasts a host of crossword-themed graphic elements; if there's an Academy Award category for best typography in title cards, legends, and names on the screen, Wordplay will win it. Brian Oakes, the guy who did more than 100 graphics for the movie, gets his due in the commentary. The lighting is mostly natural; not bad for a documentary. The background music, including tunes about puzzling, fares well.
"Five Unforgettable Puzzles" the best of the extras. This short feature introduces viewers to five of Will Shortz's constructors for a more in-depth look at how they think and work. The five puzzles they're discussing are included in the package in a booklet and on DVD-ROM; I suggest trying them before watching, since there's a lot of discussion of the clues in this segment.
Commentary with filmmaker Patrick Creadon and crossword stars Will Shortz and Merl Reagle provides a few friendly anecdotes about the people you meet in the movie, and tells how Creadon gathered the people involved. Most of the interviews are extended in the extras, which also show the Wordplay team answering questions at Sundance Film Festival. They put Shortz through his public-puzzling paces as a quizmaster at a Sundance party, show the finals from the 2006 tournament, and provide musical interludes "Every Word" and two takes on "The Crossword Song." The odd feature called "Waiting for The New York Times" shows filmmaker Patricia Erens staking out the five precious Sunday NYT copies at a small-town drug store to see who will claim these bulky prizes. All in all, it is a good bonus package.
Those of you who expect to see Jack Bauer shooting someone every time you see a split screen might be disappointed with Wordplay; no one even snaps a pencil in frustration. There's a hint of tension in the final reel, but Wordplay is a low-key look at mild-mannered people with a passion for puzzles. While this movie is aimed mostly at those who do puzzles—an estimated 50 million daily solvers in the United States alone—you'll probably enjoy it if you can get caught up in someone else's enthusiasm.
Not guilty, since I did get caught up in that enthusiasm. I am disappointed at the lack of a segment on shooting baskets with the puzzles gone wrong.
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• Commentary by Director Patrick Creadon, The New York Times Crossword Puzzle Editor Will Shortz, and Crossword Constructor Merl Reagle
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