The man was Bobby Fischer, a notoriously private guy who nonetheless became a global superstar in 1972 for unseating Russia’s Boris Spassky for the world championship in chess, so perhaps it’s not so inappropriate that a documentary about his life begin unfolding to the famous funk groove of Isaac Hayes’ “Shaft.”
For a brief time, Fischer was the man. Then, for an encore, he went nucking futs.
“Bobby Fischer Against the World,” the new documentary from Liz Garbus (“The Farm: Angola, USA”), centers on the match with Spassky, but begins with the Chicago boy’s strange childhood and ends with his descent into madness.
With the 1972 event, the stakes were high; the Soviets wielded its world championships like a weapon, one of intellectual superiority over “the decadent West.” A win for Fischer would equate to a Cold War victory for the United States. He succeeded, of course, but hardly made an impression as the best of sportsmen: first by protesting the venue, later by showing up late, throwing diva fits and protesting the presence of cameras.
Garbus’ film suggests that had Fischer not engaged in such deplorable behavior, he may not have won. Through a wealth of archival footage and interviews, we see just what an arrogant prick the man could be. Because of that, we get a deeper portrait of Fischer no book can paint. (I speak specifically of the terrific, similarly titled “Bobby Fischer Goes to War” from 2004, on which this doc technically isn’t based, but may as well be.) All the footage is new to me; I grew up hearing about him as such a recluse, I didn’t realize any of it existed.
He was a jerk, but a fascinating jerk. How else to classify someone who worked all his life for something, even sacrificing being a kid, then let it all go. After attaining household-name status, Fischer became an anti-Semite … despite being Jewish. His level of hatred toward enemies imagined is astounding, especially his cheering of 9/11: “I applaud the act! What goes around, comes around!” He had to live in exile in Iceland after that, still cursing “the Jewish snake” all the while.
Even in death, Fischer continues to cause controversy. The DVD contains an interesting (and assumedly excised) segment about the battle over his estate between two nephews and two foreign women — one in Japan, one in the Philippines. (Another bonus feature is a brief history of chess, mislabeled at being two minutes when it’s really just above five.)
It’s all fascinating stuff, with nearly as much pull on the viewer as the game had on the man. —Rod Lott