Bobby Fischer Against The World debuts tonight on HBO at 9 p.m. Eastern.
Bobby Fischer Against the World, which kicks off HBO's "Documentary Film Summer Series," was directed and produced by Liz Garbus, who's worked in one capacity or another on a string of excellent feature documentaries, many of them journalistic examinations of contemporary social and political issues. Compared to some of those, making Bobby Fischer must have been something of a breeze. The trickiest part was probably locating still-living witnesses to Fischer's life who'd be willing to sit down for talking-head interviews. Once that was done, their footage could be combined with all the existing news and TV footage documenting the life of a man who, for a notorious recluse, really hit the ground running as a public figure. One clip shows the 15-year-old Bobby, a gangly kid from Brooklyn with a quick and edgy smile and eyes that would come in handy for anyone looking to head up an apocalyptic cult. He appeared on the quiz show I've Got a Secret, where a newspaper with the headline "Teen-Ager's Strategy Defeats All Comers!" was not enough of a clue to tip off such panelists as Dick Clark that they were in the presence of the greatest chess player of all time.
Fischer, in his prime, is also seen in clips from the Carson and Cavett shows and from 60 Minutes, where Mike Wallace really breaks a sweat trying to keep the football fans at home from changing the channel by convincing them that world-class chess really is an honest-to-God "sport," talking a blue streak about the strenuous exercise regimen that Fischer had to go through to prepare himself for the exertions of sitting at a table staring at the pieces on a game board. The filmmakers are also lucky in having a subject whose life breaks down easily in a conventional three-act structure. The first third of the film covers the early years of lonely practice and boyhood fame, complete with the background on Fischer's mother Regina, a social activist with a 900-page FBI file. Describing the young Bobby, Larry Evans, a chess master who is seen here providing commentary on the Fischer-Spassky match for ABC's Wide World of Sports, says that he was "strange" but that "he hadn't gone off the deep end yet." The middle section covers the Fischer-Spassky match in detail, using clips from the TV coverage and excerpts from the evening news shows that place it in the context of its cultural moment. In the third act, Bobby, as predicted, goes off the deep end.
It's all very neat; Grabus and her team barely needed to add water. (Given that this is a documentary about something that happened in the '70s, they apparently couldn't get around the need to include the requisite music cues—"Theme from 'Shaft'", "Bang a Gong", "Rock and Roll, Parts One and Two"—which set the obligatory nostalgic-kitschy tone, even if Bobby Fischer is the last person you ever expected to see walking around to the accompaniment of Booker T. & the M.G.s. There's also a snippet of a Soviet ditty celebrating the heroic chess master: "Sturdy are my muscles/ Oh, my fingers, they're so long/ Hold 'em, wooden, fine-carved/ Hand enameled castles!") It may be a little too neat. The film shows funny-looking silent movie footage of cackling, eye-rolling lunatics at chess boards while exploring the possibility that there may be something about the intellectual focus required of true students of the game that makes them paranoid and ultimately drives them batshit.
Some of the things about Fischer that the film seems to regard as mysterious aren't that mysterious at all if you think about it. He came to excel at chess because, starting when he was 6 years old, he devoted a phenomenal amount of time to getting really good at it. He grew into a socially awkward young man with increasingly strange views partly because he had devoted so much of his time to chess that there was a lot about the rest of the world that he didn't learn. And his arrogance, which as a player came connected to a passion not just for winning but demolishing his opponents, must have been at least partly a defense mechanism to conceal just how much he knew he didn't know. That arrogance is a handy quality from the filmmakers' point of view, because it helps make Fischer fascinating, at every stage of his life. Seen as a boy, he's charismatic and touching; seen towards the end of his life, he's magnetically pathetic.
Far more mysterious, from a contemporary point of view, is the film's distillation of the match between Fischer and the Russian world champion Boris Spassky that captivated the world for a few months in 1972. The match was perceived as a Cold War showdown, and Fischer's resentment of his mother and her politics may have fueled his lust to humiliate the Soviets. (He warmed up for his meeting with Spassky by going on a 20-game winning streak, during which he chewed up and spit out a succession of Russian masters.) Henry Kissinger tells the camera about how he encouraged Fischer to play Spassky because he thought that having an American world master would be "good for democracy," and we see an old news clip of some guy in the park saying that he expects Fischer will win because, unlike his Commie opponent, he'll have the incentive of getting to keep his prize money.
But neither politics nor Fishcer's star power can make it fully understandable now that millions of people watched this, on live TV, under the umbrella of a sports show, not when you're seeing what viewers got to watch during the first match: One man, Spassky, sitting forlornly at the table, then making a move and finally getting up to pace around the room, waiting for his opponent to show up. Fischer's late arrival, claiming to have been stuck in traffic (they have traffic in Iceland?), and his later shenanigans, complaining about the playing conditions and the noise he claimed the TV cameras gave off, were widely taken for mind games intended to weird out and wear down his opponent, but they didn't seem to help his own play any more than they hurt Spassky's. He lost the first game after what Shelby Lyman (whose PBS commentary on the match made him a minor celebrity) calls "a colossal beginner's blunder," and it was only because Spassky had too much pride to accept a victory by forfeit that the games went on.
For a while, without the cameras rolling, TV viewers were tuning into Wide World of Sports to watch a man in an ABC logo jacket holding a telephone to his ear, listening to a man on the other line describe what he'd seen. Still, nothing could quite prepare people who missed the '70s for the special emissary from the land of WTF!? that was LeRoy Neiman. Neiman, who looked as if Salvador Dali had mated with a Naugahyde doll, used to class up Wide World of Sports by dropping by to display his painterly impressions of the great sports figures of the day, which at their most eye-pleasing resembled something that R. B. Kitaj just threw up. Neiman concedes that he thought watching a "chess match would be like watching grass grow," but that it turned out to be "Ali-Forman all over again", and produces a picture purportedly showing "Bobby Fischer leaving the hotel for the fight, like a matador leaving the Palace Hotel in Madrid." Soon, Fischer was a point away from winning the title outright, when Spassky, 40 moves into the 21st game, announced his retirement. Fischer returned home to a chess-besotted America the world champion, talking about how he was looking forward to playing many more games. Instead, he hung up his board, seemingly for good, and in 1975, refused to defend his title against a new Russian challenger, Anatoly Karpov. Finally, world officials declared Karpov the champion by default and stripped Fischer of his title, which must have seemed like a small price to pay for slipping off LeRoy Neiman's radar.
Fischer's "comeback" arrived in 1992, when he played a self-proclaimed "world championship" grudge match with Spassky in Yugoslavia, an event distinguished only by the fact that it put him at odds with the United Nations embargo that was in effect at the time. News clips of him answering the letter he'd received from the U.S. State Department advising him not to participate by spitting on it clear up any questions anyone might have had at the time about how much good his 20 years' vacation from the limelight had done for his personality. But the U.S. government didn't really regard him as a marked man until he called up a radio station in the Philippines on September 12, 2001, to exult in the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. the day before.
By the time he was arrested in Japan, his reputation as history's foremost chess master had been all but eclipsed by his reputation as the world's mouthiest Jewish anti-Semite, though he was able to swing deportation to Iceland, where memories of 1972 were still strong enough that he was apparently beloved, right up to the triumphant airport interview where he informed sports reporter Jeremy Schaap that Schaap's father, Dick, had turned on him like "a typical Jewish snake." He died in 2008 of a prostate condition that you have to have a fully committed phobia about medical treatment in order to die from. The last word goes to Kari Stefansson, a dignified, grey-haired neurologist who used to humor Fischer in his last years, until he "got enough of him." Some people, he says, become creatively fertile by learning to think outside the box; it's just that "occasionally, it is difficult to get back into the box." A few years ago, there was an episode of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, featuring a psycho killer (played by Robert Carradine) clearly modeled on Fischer. As he was hauled away at the end, Vincent D'Onofrio said sagely, "That's what happens when you don't let people do what they're good at." In fact, that decision was made by Fischer himself, possibly because he couldn't bear the thought of losing and having to come down from the mountain. The most important lesson he never learned about life may have been that, eventually, if you don't come down on your own, the mountain will shake you down anyway.