June 6 (Bloomberg) -- Bobby Fischer’s fall from chess god to ranting madman is laid out move by inexorable move in Liz Garbus’s documentary, “Bobby Fischer Against the World.”
Premiering tonight on HBO, the unnerving film draws a line between genius and insanity that isn’t so much thin as invisible.
The chess mania of 1972 seems just this side of absurd from today’s vantage point, but Cold War rivalry and a personal backstory compelling enough for fiction turned that summer’s World Chess Championship between Brooklyn’s Fischer and Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union into a competition of Super Bowl dimensions.
Garbus’s film, with its treasure of old photographs, film footage and testimony from those who knew him well, efficiently lays the tragedy’s groundwork.
Born in Chicago, Fischer began studying chess by age 6, quickly developing an obsession that prompted at least one trip to a psychiatrist.
Though concerned, his single mother was preoccupied with her own issues: A committed Communist, she was hounded by the FBI and devoted little time to her oddball son. She left Fischer and his elder sister on their own when Bobby was 16.
Fischer’s fame exploded with the Spassky rivalry in ‘72. They were the Cold War writ small -- Spassky supported by a Soviet chess machine of near-Olympic proportions, and Fischer the self-taught ideal of American individualism. The 21-game championship in Iceland, seen on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, routinely competed with Watergate and the war in Vietnam for the top spot on network newscasts.
“Bobby Fischer” makes fine use of such newscasts, as well as clips of talk-show appearances with Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett. The film is most compelling in recounting the games themselves, diagramming moves and conveying tension. As the world watched, Fischer revealed the instability that would later undo him, showing up late for matches or threatening to quit because of noise.
Had the story ended with his ‘72 victory, Fischer might be remembered as little more than the John McEnroe of chess, temperamental but amusing. The darkness was coming, though. In a clip from the Carson show in November of that year, the 29-year-old Fischer seems utterly deflated: Something, he tells Carson, “has been taken out of me.”
The documentary deflates a bit too as it struggles to chronicle Fischer’s reclusive, post-championship era. “Bobby Fischer” mostly relies on interviews with friends and colleagues to recount the Jewish Fischer’s newfound adoption of Christian fundamentalism and vile anti-Semitism. Delusional and probably psychotic, he claimed Soviet spies were monitoring his every move.
Fischer re-emerged in 1992, winning a rematch against Spassky in Yugoslavia. His participation violated United Nations sanctions against Yugoslavia for fomenting ethnic conflict in the Balkans, leading to a U.S. arrest warrant that made Fischer a fugitive until his death in Iceland in 2008. By then he had publicly endorsed the “wonderful news” of 9/11.
One remarkable scene shows a ranting Fischer at a press conference in Iceland shortly before his death at age 64. The session is halted when a journalist questions his sanity. The greatest chess player in history falls silent, defeated.
“Bobby Fischer Against the World” airs tonight on HBO at 9 p.m New York time. Rating: ****
Does America still have an appetite for nasty-tempered judges? Chef Gordon Ramsay and the second season of Fox’s “MasterChef” believe so.
The cooking-contest show -- a surprise hit last summer -- takes its recipe from the Simon Cowell-era of “American Idol.” In the premiere episode, a parade of jittery contestants served up meals and sob stories to the Ramsay-led panel of culinary judges.
“Tastes like I’m eating a tire,” Ramsay barks at one dejected cooker.
“MasterChef,” with its time-tested formula of unsparing critique leavened with sentimentality (one contestant hopes to amend for his drug-abusing youth by winning the contest), scores no points for innovation. But after an “Idol” season of milquetoast mentors, a little bite and spice feels oddly refreshing.
“MasterChef” airs Mondays on Fox at 8 p.m. New York time. Rating: **1/2
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
(Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)
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