You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Big Small Screen

Too Big to Fail

Bobby Fischer Against the World

In the last few weeks, America has had the chance to see two disturbing movies about our warping emphasis on heroes. Both of them played on cable, on HBO in fact, and some may think that therefore they fall under the rubric of “television.” But this misunderstanding has not prevented many of the best film directors in America from being driven to cable recently for worthwhile work. One of these pictures—Too Big to Fail, directed by Curtis Hanson—feels like a suspense melodrama and looks like a film noir, though virtually all its characters are known names in that ramshackle reality show called “the economy.” The other is Bobby Fischer Against the World, directed by Liz Garbus, which presents itself as a documentary. Yet the Fischer film is as moving as art hopes to be, while the feature is as scary as a well-made thriller in which the guys are genre archetypes.

Too Big to Fail has the strengths and the failings of the book it comes from, a best-seller by Andrew Ross Sorkin, which had the subtitle The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial Systemand Themselves. At the time of the crisis in September 2008 that turned on the failure of Lehman Brothers, Sorkin was a New York Times reporter and columnist, and it was his business to have the “inside” stuff, so he was able to publish his book just thirteen months after the peak of the crisis. He is smart, brisk, and aware that his career depends on licensed access: insiders will tell him good and bad stuff so long as he doesn’t damage them. This way he and the insiders can last, with “access” gradually diluting truth and responsibility. Like any TV pundit, Sorkin has the assurance that says, “Sure, I can answer your very difficult question now, quickly and amusingly—and don’t let’s bother about doubt, it only makes people uneasy. So just latch on to my blow-by-blow version of what happened. Really, it’s like a thriller.”

Curtis Hanson’s adroit film edits the book down, but never threatens its glib estimate of itself. I put it that way because, if you think back to Hanson’s L.A. Confidential, its noir nostalgia for the early 1940s is clever at adapting James Ellroy’s novel, but it also takes us inside Ellroy’s passionate and fevered head, and makes us inhabit the ignoble character of four L.A. cops. That film worked like a novel, whereas Too Big to Fail is just a dramatized synopsis in which some noble cynics guard our citadel. It is hardboiled—instead of admitting that the egg just exploded.

This is not to say it lacks atmosphere or personal presence: it is so dark and so hushed, you feel the mounting fear in the finance moguls. The settings are sumptuous; the lives are spuriously “ordinary” (Ben Bernanke plugs away at his oatmeal); the acting is full of quiet panache—William Hurt as Hank Paulson, not so distant from his wicked brother Richie in A History of Violence, and James Woods hopelessly caught in his frantic Woodsiness as Dick Fuld, chairman of Lehman. The marvel and the terror of the film is that these real men are so helpless, so venal, and so supporting-actorly. But Hurt and Woods have an authority that is rarely tested these days, so they circle themselves like a dandy with a mirror. Their instinct for a rich part keeps them a touch too removed from the dangerous realities of a bankrupt system.

But such a view of the king’s men is what fits the nature of access: most people depicted in this “exposé” could see it with their self-respect intact. It is left to us—especially if we remember Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job—to see how the system is corrupt, insane, and fail-safe (as in the big guys will be the last ones hurt in any failure). Ferguson’s film did not claim an “inside” stance: it was the work of a Candide-like observer looking in and developing nausea. But Sorkin is happy to reassure us with the notion that hard work and comradeship carried the market through the crisis. The guys come off as battered heroes. They weren’t. They were the people who got us into this crisis. It was luck and fear—the new versions of virtue and guilt in America—that “saved” us, so long as we all turned a blind eye to unpleasant remedies and enduring greed. So Sorkin should be lumped in with the “themselves” of his own subtitle. He is a consulting producer on the film, and he must be in the Woodward class for “access” now.

Long before the end, we realize how far the economy is beyond films, whether they are reassuring or scolding—and finally who can tell one tone from the other? The economy requires radical political intervention and we ducked that. It would involve belief in, and energy for, our politics. So we will fail again, and worse—but Sorkin may have a deal on that book already. 

THE BOBBY FISCHER movie lacks the smoothness and editorial fluency of Hanson’s film. As a modern documentary, it is victim to the assumption that to have a narration, or an informative voice, betrays the authenticity of the form—as if any film was not an imposition on its subject. Instead Liz Garbus (she made The Farm: Angola, USA) has gone for talking-head authorities-people who knew Fischer, chess masters, Malcolm Gladwell. These figures are filmed in portentous and artfully lit settings that only stress the artificiality of talking-head cinema. The experts read into the film’s record material that really requires narration. But they also personify the object of Fischer’s paranoia: other people.

The documentary has a plaintive score plus period pop music, along with fleeting references to Northern Ireland, Vietnam, Henry Kissinger, and Watergate, as well as library shots of planes landing and taking off, all-purpose cityscapes, the green and empty hills of Iceland, and cute montage whenever the details of a chess match are judged too complicated for the audience. Fischer would have despised this treatment.

Bobby Fischer Against the World would be thin and tedious but for the man himself. The lustrous talking heads (some of them puffy with self-importance) should have realized they could not compete with Fischer’s listless intensity, or his childlike hostility. He was a chess genius, to be sure. More than that, he was beautiful. I don’t mean in the sense of Greek statues or movie stars. But Fischer’s face, from an early age, was informed with tragedy.

Film is better suited to saying, “Look at this face,” than to saying, “See how the economy works.” There are some fine professional portraits of the man (shot by Harry Benson), but they are not as eloquent or disconcerting as the family snapshots in which the crewcut and the lake-like eyes seem to suggest a concentration camp experience. His life was not as bad as that, but the term is not wildly off. He was born in Chicago, Jewish, in 1943 to a very bright, Communist single mother, Regina, who had an affair with a man Fischer hardly knew. Bobby’s childhood was eclipsed by chess. He started at six, as his mother left him alone a lot with his sister. He played as he ate. He read books on chess. The concentration would not have existed without his natural talent. But chess is an implacable contact-free war, hardly a sport and seldom playful—a cold-blooded duel in which one mind seeks to subdue another. Fischer said as much in a Dick Cavett interview (the remark is not quoted in this film) in which he exulted in the moment when he knew he was about to destroy the opponent. Such concentration takes no prisoners, and it can breed a terrible solitude in its winners.

Fischer met Boris Spassky in Reykjavik in 1972 and beat him without great difficulty. Spassky comes across as amiable and decent, but unnerved by Fischer’s charisma. The film does not really explore the twenty-one games they played. Fischer’s key victory in the sixth game is called a thing of beauty, but the film doesn’t explain why. Yet it shows that a lifetime of preparation still allowed the impulsive Fischer to choose openings he had never employed before. That was what dumbfounded Spassky. That was what made Fischer look like Mozart playing with Salieri.

He was World Champion at twenty-nine and one of the most famous people in the television age. The playing of chess took off in America, but Bobby was devastated. By nature he was a challenger and an insurgent, with a need to deflate Russia’s sense of intellectual superiority (which may reveal a dislike of his mother). As a champion he seemed afraid of losing, so we don’t quite know how good he was. (Spassky may not have been the toughest competitor.) But fame certainly terrified him. There are surreal television scenes where he talks to people such as Johnny Carson and sneers at that punch-drunk opening from other reporters, “How did it feel to win?” Doesn’t every loser in America know that dream inside out?

He became a recluse, an anti-Semite, and a man ready to gloat over 9/11. He died in 2008, in Iceland, the only country that would take him in. He had gone mad—but surely he had been disturbed most of his life. As champion he gave up chess and had no life to retreat to. There is rough footage of him prowling around, hiding from cameras, and his crab-like walk makes you think of Gregor Samsa or Luzhin, the suicidal grandmaster in The Defense by Vladimir Nabokov, a considerable chess-player himself. One day Bobby Fischer should get his own novel, or maybe an opera. His exhausted, hopelesshopeful face is begging for it, to say nothing of his classic bipolar castling with supremacy and despair.

So I am grateful for these two films—and they are not even the full extent of HBO’s season. They are further proof that the action in film today is nearly always on the small screen. But the lesson is a warning, too. Screens cry out for raw visibility: that’s why Bobby Fischer’s face makes a larger work than all the scuttling desperation of Too Big to Fail. Once upon a time, there was a hope that film—especially documentary—could be used to help right our wrongs. By now it’s evident that when we can’t see a thing, we doubt that it exists or is worth examining. Too Big to Fail is more frightening and comprehensive than Bobby’s madness, but it feels like gallows entertainment. It is a disaster film for a society counting on crossed fingers.

Stanley Kauffmann is on temporary leave. This review was written by David Thomson.