Searching for Bobby Fischer – Family Movie Night

The Story:

Chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin refuses to harden himself in order to become a champion like the famous but unlikable Bobby Fischer.

The Stars:

Joe Mantegna, Ben Kingsley, Laurence Fishburne

Release Date:




Our Take:

Despite laboring in relative (and surprising) obscurity when compared to many of its “Based On a True Story” counterparts, Steven Zaillian’s Searching for Bobby Fischerhas stuck more firmly in my memory than most other “real-life” films I’ve seen. Even now, some twenty years and countless biopics and adaptations later, it remains my favorite, and by a wide margin.

Based on writer Fred Waitzkin’s first-hand account — “Searching for Bobby Fischer: The Father of a Prodigy Observes the World of Chess” – the film tells the story of young chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin’s meteoric rise in the strange world of competitive chess, and of his family’s struggles to find a balance between the pressure (and fame) of high-profile competition and their son’s desire for a normal childhood.

At first, Josh’s (Max Pomeranc) fascination with his new pastime — discovered almost in passing — is matched only by his extraordinary aptitude, and by his father’s (Joe Montagna) excitement. Eventually, Fred’s desire to nurture that baffling talent leads him to replace his son’s strongest (and most enjoyable) chess influences — the brash speed demon Vinnie (Laurence Fishburne) and the blitz-chess denizens of New York’s Washington Square Park — with renowned coach and taskmaster, Bruce Pandolfini (Ben Kingsley).

The inevitable clash between Vinnie’s trash-talking, improvisational style and Pandolfini’s calculating, dispassionate one increases the pressure on Josh and his father, forcing the youngster to choose between the two, and forcing his father to come to terms with what exactly he’s encouraging in his son (and most importantly, why he’s encouraging it).

The film is well-acted and beautifully shot – Conrad Hall’s amazing artistry has never been more evident than in the film’s unforgettable “Chess in the Rain” sequence, and look at that close-up of Pomeranc, for goodness sake! — and while the story might seem a bit formulaic “on paper,” the cinematic reality is rich and vibrant. Particularly worthwhile is the film’s focus on a question with which all parents must grapple at some point in their children’s lives: How much of one’s motivation in helping them succeed is driven by a desire to see them achieve the full measure of their potential, and how much by one’s own ambitions and desires?

Be Aware:

The film is rated PG for “thematic elements,” and suffers from what I like to call “Little League Syndrome: Parents Behaving Badly at Their Children’s Events.” There is a bit more competitive intensity than one might expect from a film that revolves around chess, and since most of that intensity is connected to parents placing undue expectations on their children, younger viewers might be troubled by those scenes.

Appropriate for Ages:

With the above caveat noted, I would be comfortable showing the film to viewers aged 7 and up. Check here for more.

Related Material:

Based on “Searching for Bobby Fischer: The Father of a Prodigy Observes the World of Chess,” the book Joshua’s father, Fred Waitzkin, wrote regarding his son’s experiences in the world of competitive chess.

This is the latest in our Family Movie Night series, in which Patheos writers bring you weekly  recommendations for a film to watch together as a family. All our recommendations can be found by visiting the Family Movie Night page.

Attribution(s): All posters, publicity images, and movie stills are the property of Paramount Pictures and other respective production studios and distributors, and are intended for editorial use only.

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About Joseph Susanka

Joseph has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since graduating from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. A grateful resident of Wyoming, he spends his free time exploring the beautiful Wind River Mountains, keeping track of his (currently) seven sons, being amazed by his (currently) lone daughter, and thanking his lucky stars for Netflix.

  • Steven Greydanus

    Coincidentally, I was just talking about this movie on Twitter, so I’ll say here (somewhat more expansively) what I noted there: In addition to its many other virtues, which you note, SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER also features some of the most exhilarating chess sequences ever committed to film, including the one sequence—the climax—that captures better than any other I’ve seen the elegance and power of chess.

    The logic of one particular match, the brilliance of the endgame that comes down to one smashing, surprise twist, seen 12 moves in advance by one of the opponents, is conveyed in a way that is not only clear, but cinematic.

    • Joseph Susanka

      “…some of the most exhilarating chess sequences ever committed to film…”

      Now that’s a claim I can easily and emphatically endorse, Steven. It’s the (extraordinarily unusual) combination of clarity AND cinematic effectiveness that really boggles the mind on this one.

      I’m not a chess person. Emphatically not. But I AM a chess person when I watch this film. (Can there be a greater testament to its effectiveness? I doubt it.)