In a game of chess, if your queen is taken, it might mean a permanent loss of what was thought to be a god given talent. Seven year old Joshua Waitzkin does not realize that, and thus it allowed him to become the greatest chess champion in the country.
Josh is not a chess player. Josh is a boy who plays chess, as well as baseball, Legos, Clue and just about anything else including fishing with his dad. He knows this about himself. The problem is the adults in his life only see chess, and nothing else. Writer/Director Steve Zaillian assembles a film that turns the world’s most historic board game into a means of recognizing self worth and the limits of talent and its correlation to identity.
Josh gains influence from a cutthroat chess instructor named Bruce (Ben Kingsley) who doesn’t just teach chess but also teaches contempt and dislike for your opponent. It helps that he recognizes Josh’s talent but is Bruce coaching with best intentions?
Contrary to Bruce is a park Speed Player (Laurence Fishburne) who reminds Josh to always play on offense. Play the board, not the opponent. Josh’s father (Joe Mantegna) only sees victory through beautiful trophies. When Josh loses interest in champion accomplishment, his father fails to see nothing but failure. His mother (Joan Allen) sees the boy losing his boyhood.
These are all good people and necessary for Josh. The conflict lies in the clash of their different ideals. I love that. There isn’t a villain here. There’s a debate.
Zaillain devotes time to footage of renowned champion Bobby Fischer who eventually went into seclusion probably due to the lack of any worthy challenger beyond himself. The worry of the film lies in whether Josh will end up with the same sad fate of Fischer. Everyone is on the hunt for the next Bobby Fischer. Does everyone want to be the cruel, cold and isolated Bobby Fischer; a man with talent yet hates his talent.
Zallian films very effectively in a majority of close ups, hardly showing the surroundings of the settings. He wants his camera to maintain a tunnel vision to only allow Josh, and those that discover him, per se, to see what’s directly in front of him. Nothing else. Nothing but the chess pieces on a board and how many moves until check mate arrives.
The film edits beautifully in sound as the speed play pounds the chess pieces in like an aggressive music accompaniment. Pieces are KNOCKED onto the board, and when a queen is taken it is SLAMMED on to the table. A person has ultimately been disabled and weakened. When check mate eventually comes, the king piece weakly drops over.
Josh is not proud of his ability to conquer. He’s proud of his ability to play.