Originally made for the HBO channel in the US, but being theatrically exhibited in the UK (another sign of the channel's increasing success?) Bobby Fischer Against The World looks at Fischer's rise to fame as chess prodigy and his inevitable fall from grace to paranoia and exile, with his 1972 world championship match as the centrepiece. Fischer was the closest thing chess had to a rock star, he made the sport explode across the United States and, for a time, his name was on everybody's lips.
Unfortunately, that was the last thing he wanted, as the film goes to great pains to emphasise.
Using a mixture of archive footage and photography of Fischer and his matches and talking head interviews with many of his peers and friends (and ex-friends), 'Bobby Fischer Against The World' is pretty traditional in the scope of things, but no less compelling for this. And while there is much discussion of the reasoning, motives and causes for Fischer's often erratic and behavior, there's little ambiguity as to what he eventually became, although some of this is supported by footage of Fischer near the end of his life.
But this is less about someone standing on the shoulder of giants, but someone standing on the shoulder of themselves, and trying to cope with that as well as several thousand other people climbing on hiss shoulders as well. The film makes a strong case that his troubles were rooted in his family life.
We're told his mother - who was an activist with a nine-hundred page FBI file due to communist suspicions - looked at his interest and apparent talent in chess as a way to make money, which is echoed today in people like Venus and Serena Williams and even Miley Cyrus, with parents who are seen as domineering and overbearing micro-managers who see their children as a meal ticket to stardom and riches. While that's an extreme example, and the film certainly doesn't go that far, there is a hint of it there. There were also problems with Fischer's father - who was never revealed to Bobby as his father and instead was known as a family friend - who was shut out of his life after showing concern at his son's seeming obsession with chess.
And it was clearly an obsession. The film shows footage of Fischer when he talks of starting playing at six, later becoming the US champion in his early teens. There's a short interview of him which is shown (and repeated briefly at the film's end) which shows he was already uncomfortable with media attention, which would become a theme as his fame exploded to the point of agitation during his biggest moment in the limelight: his world championship showdown with Russian Boris Spassky in Iceland, which became the chess world's Rumble in the Jungle, especially with the political underpinnings from the cold war, where even Garry Kasparov said Russia looked at the match and the chess world in general as "proof of intellectual superiority over decadent West"
There's a moment when Fischer is asked about whether he plays psychological mindgames with his opponents, to which he says "I don't believe in psychology, only good moves." However, this is debated within the film as he has various issues during the match which would suggest to you and I that he's either psychologically taking Spassky to town or has a serious case of OCD.
He shows up late to matches, refuses to take part unless cameras are moved away from him due to their apparent noise, and eventually demands one of the games take part in a sealed room away from everyone. One of his peers and a friend for much of his life, says that he thinks they were genuine issues, and that Fischer specifically had acute hypersensitivity in his ears which meant the camera noises would break his concentration,which is a fair point, although the film does treat this as a sign of Fischer's now trademark obsessive behaviour.
However, the film also highlights Fischer's indisputable genius in regards to chess, showing him pulling off risky moves that normal chess players generally don't go for, and portrays the remaining matches as an exhibition of brilliant chess, which brings forward to argument of personality versus performance, or at least the media's constructed image of personality, and being able to separate that.
The film is about Bobby Fischer's rise and fall, but it's also about Bobby Fischer the chess genius who popularised what was previously seen as a geeky activity and helped make it into a respected sport. However, while that is often emphasised, there is a significant amount looking at his fall, and why this happened. Fischer's obsessions with privacy apparently eventually led to paranoia, with one interviewee describing him saying he thought the Soviet Union were sending messages to him through his fillings.
He eventually looked to religion, but unfortunately also to anti-semitic material, which he began to preach, to the disgust of his friends. It's fascinating, but sometimes hard to watch, although you do feel that injustice was perhaps done when the UN declare him a criminal because he has a rematch with Spassky in mid-war Yugoslavia.
It's not hard to understand that this led to him resenting his country, although much of that sympathy disappears when a recording his played of him phoning into a Filipino radio station on 9/11, essentially saying the US got what it deserved. And when we see him directly attack the father of a journalist as a "Jewish snake", it's hard not to agree when the journalist tells him that he has heard a lot of bad things about Fischer, and what he has heard has done nothing to disprove these.
And it's with a bitterness the film plays out. A bitterness over his later years, but also over his genius, that a man with such talent can fall to such lows. But the film does a good job of not just showing how, but debating on various aspects of that. There are a couple of missteps, namely a set of animated interstitial titles that seem a bit unnecessary (and subtextually clumsy) due to the clear narrative, and the use of period music is sometimes a bit cheesy (how many times do I have to watch a film/documentary about the 60s that plays 'Green Onions'?) But it's a compelling watch, not a straight demonisation, but certainly not fawning over his genius. And what it shows us, eventually, is absolutely Bobby Fischer against the world.