This has to be one of the best movies I’ve seen. I loved it when I was a kid, and now that I’m older I just find more to appreciate. It’s a sports film at its heart, except the ‘sport’ in question here is chess. And if you think that there’s no way a movie centered on a game in which two people sit at a table and move little pieces around can be exciting, think again.
The movie works on several levels. On the one hand, it’s a rousing, inspirational, and suspenseful story about a child prodigy named Josh Waitskin (a real chess champion, by the way). At the same time, it takes a few potshots at modern American culture, a culture concerned with competition and prestige, with winning and losing. The parents in this film are willing to do whatever it takes to make sure their kids win–and I mean anything. We see a formerly kind and loving father decide to deny their child friendship so that they can devote all their time to bettering their skill at chess. We see a father yelling at his son for losing a game at a tournament. We see a teacher telling a student to “hate your enemies, because they hate you.” The question this movie wants you to think about is this: what do you have to give up to be the best, or to enable your child to be the best at something? And is it really worth it?
What makes this movie so special is the multidimensionality of its supporting characters. Although the father mentioned above certainly does some horrible things for the sake of glory, he’s also shown to be a loving man who deeply cares about his son. Though the actions of the protagonists’ chess teacher often seem needlessly harsh, he, too, is shown to have good intentions. Even the movie’s ‘villain’, an arrogant, ultra-competitive boy who likes to gloat over his opponents, is pretty sympathetic, since he’s just a product of an upbringing so shocking it makes me wonder why no one called child support on his parents.
You don’t have to be a chess master to enjoy this movie. Honestly, the games themselves are barely shown at all. It’s the players’ faces and emotions that hold center stage, rather than the movements of the pieces on the board. The games themselves will actually make good chess players cringe. There’s one scene in particular that’s guaranteed to make anyone who knows anything about chess laugh out loud. It’s where a one of the children, who’s supposed to be some sort of super-chess genius, smirks at his apparent victory, only to have his smirk change to a look of horror a second later when he notices he’d been tricked. Then the movie pans down to show the chess board. It’s got three pieces on it, in a straight diagonal line. Three. Are we really supposed to believe that this boy genius didn’t notice he was about to lose? I wonder which of the three pieces slipped his notice.
Honestly, stuff like this doesn’t even matter so much. Though I’m not exactly sure why the filmmakers couldn’t be bother to think up tactically-sound games for a move all about chess geniuses, such technicalities are pretty much irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. It’s a great drama, and a feel-good movie for all ages.