There are two biopics currently screening in cinemas, only one of which you’ve likely heard of, and both of which are about A Great American Nerd who changed the world.
Steve Jobs is the one you would have heard of. It’s about Steve Jobs, who probably invented the thing that you’re reading this on (…just to clarify, your iThing, not your chair). If Steve Jobs didn’t invent the thing that you’re reading this on, then it’s even more important that you go and watch the film Steve Jobs.
The other film is Pawn Sacrifice. If you’ve even heard of it, then you probably skipped over it, concerned that the confusing title reminded you too painfully of that time your hard-drive corrupted and you lost everything… EVERYTHING. Don’t worry, sicko, it’s not about that. It’s about former Chess World Champion Bobby Fischer, who has nothing to do with Steve Jobs or your ‘collection’.
So, where does that leave us? In a not-too-dissimilar place from that time you couldn’t decide whether to watch Olympus Has Fallen or White House Down. Once again, OTC’s done the hard work for you.
We’ve talked about this, I won’t harp on. Without prior knowledge, they’re both flawed titles. Pawn Sacrifice conjures distressing flashbacks to your early-teenage, no-internet family camping trips. Equally distressing, Steve Jobs triggers moments of panic that you’re about to watch two-and-a-half hours of Ashton Kutcher pretending to be smart. Relax, neither is what it threatens to be. At least with Steve Jobs, you more-or-less know what you’re in for.
Winner: Steve Jobs
Both films do an excellent job of reminding us that the lives and legacies of these two nerds are IMPORTANT. For most, Steve Jobs’ impact on our world is far more prescient. He’s in our pockets, our backpacks, our living rooms every minute of every day. He changed the way we communicate, relax and – as the movie emphasises – think. “The computer is a bicycle for the mind.” He’s one of only two essential things required for lengthy bathroom visits. “The iPad is toilet paper for the mind.”
But, while you may not be as familiar with the name Bobby Fischer, he was once upon a time about the most famous person in the world. At the height of the Cold War, he was a living metaphor for American resistance against Soviet aggression. The Fischer-Spassky duel for the title of World Champion in 1972 was not just a game of chess. It was the only arena in which a head-to-head battle between America and the USSR – Democracy and Communism – was being played out. No pressure Bob.
And yet, despite their achievements, ‘hero’ is a slightly uncomfortable word to use for either Steve Jobs or Bobby Fischer, a conflict which is nicely woven into the underlying theme of both films. In addition to being a visionary, Jobs was a stubborn bully, a pretty lousy father and, even today, can be held largely to blame for middle-aged men wearing sneakers with jeans.
Bobby Fischer’s arrogance and petulance were legendary. His dressing room demands would have made Van Halen proud. Sadly, it became clear that Bobby’s ‘difficult nature’ was more than just a typical case of ‘rockstar chess players behaving badly’; and, in his later years, as mental illness really took hold, Fischer went full Mel Gibson, blaming the Jews for everything and denouncing the country that had once declared him its greatest hero. His passport was torn up and he died a recluse in Iceland in 2008. Spoiler alert.
Steve did more for the world, offended fewer people, and was definitely more celebrated in death. But Bobby’s life was more interesting, and that’s why we go to the movies.
Winner: Pawn Sacrifice
Again, relax, there’s no Ashton Kutcher here. Michael Fassbender is Steve Jobs. He shouts at various other famous actors, including Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels and Kate Winslett. They’re all fine, but this is a one-man show. So it is with Pawn Sacrifice. Tobey McGuire is Bobby Fischer. He shouts at Peter Sarsgaard and Liev Shreiber (who, it turns out, speaks Russian. Huh.). Interestingly, both Tobey McGuire and Michael Fassbender shout at Michael Stuhlbarg, who looks a lot like Leonard from The Big Bang Theory and seems to be Hollywood’s supporting actor flavour of the summer. A plump, hairy, bespectacled flavour.
This is a tough one to call. It’s apparently conceptually impossible, and potentially even illegal, to criticise Fassbender’s acting. Or fass bending. So I can’t and won’t. On the other hand, Tobey McGuire is at home here. He knows he wasn’t born to play superheroes or racing horse riders (I feel like there’s a word for that). He was born to play petulant chess players.
Winner: Michael Stuhlbarg
The thing about human lives is that they are long, and, unless you’re Forrest Gump, not all of it is interesting. Fortunately, both of these biopics recognise that important fact and so keep things focused.
Steve Jobs is creatively played out across three big product launches – the Mac (1984), the Next Cube (1988) and the iMac (1998). Remember the Next Cube? It was just like other computers except it didn’t work. If anything, Steve Jobs is a little too focused. It ends somewhat anti-climactically, before we even see an iPod. It’s possible that they had planned to keep going but Seth Rogen couldn’t keep a straight face any longer.
Pawn Sacrifice is a little more complete – we’re introduced to Bobby as a child and then quickly watch his rise to Chess God before settling in to absorb the full drama of the 1972 World Championship.
Thankfully, you don’t need to be a Chess Grandmaster to understand or appreciate Pawn Sacrifice. You won’t have to pretend to be ‘getting it’, nod knowingly with your chin in your hand and say educated things like “mmm…personally I would have moved the white horse”, “the best strategy here would be to capture his King” or “I just can’t believe neither of them have called Yahtzee yet”.
No, fortunately, all the action is played out on the concentrated brows of Fischer and his foes, and guided along by helpful (sometimes too helpful) little expositions by a conga line of news reporters who say things like “so Jim, what you’re saying is that if Bobby wins this next game, he’ll win the tournament and thus bring forth a dramatic climax to this movie?”
It also plays out mercifully quickly. Unlike watching real chess, at no point do you feel like jumping to your feet, throwing your popcorn at the wall and screaming “JUST MOVE A FRICKING PIECE!!!”.
Likewise, you don’t need to be a 17-yr-old Korean Instagramer to understand or appreciate Steve Jobs. The story of the man and his ambitions is interesting whether or not you’re planning to line up for three days, pooping in a bucket, in order to buy the first next iPhone.
So the difference? Pawn Sacrifice gives you a beginning, a middle and an end. The full hot dog. Steve Jobs just gives you the sausage. It’s a delicious weiner, but you kind of wish you had a bun.
Winner: Pawn Sacrifice
Script & Production
It doesn’t take long to be reminded that Steve Jobs is the work of AaronTalkTooFastSorkin (West Wing, The Newsroom, The Social Network… Gilmore Girls?). Before the first act is over, Steve has said “walk with me” to at least three different people and then taken off down a corridor, monologueing furiously, oblivious to whether or not anyone has actually followed him. The script is for sure sharp. Zingers zing. Finger pistols are fired. Seth Rogan struggles to keep up and keeps accidentally laughing. It’s exciting, but real people say ‘um’.
People talk a bit slower in Pawn Sacrifice, and thank Jobs they do because they’re talking about chess and the Cold War. This is a period piece of course, and they do a pretty good job of recreating ’60s America. Everything is slightly more brown and grey and the telephones are huge.
Do you have to see either film in the cinema? No, there is exactly the same number of exploding spaceships in both movies. You won’t miss out if you wait for the DVDs or download them illegally on your iThing.
Winner: Steve Jobs
I started the chess club at my university. I can’t really remember why, but it was probably because I had too many friends and wanted something fun for us to all to do together. Maybe that makes me bias, but I particularly enjoyed Pawn Sacrifice. As far as movies made about board games go, it’s a lot better than Battleship. Still no word on the dramatic screen adaptation of Hungry Hungry Hippos.
Having said that, I’m about as good at chess as I am at iPhones, and I only recently discovered you can play chess on your iPhone. And I enjoyed Steve Jobs too. Even Ashton Kutcher enjoyed Steve Jobs. I heard he has spent his time since he watched it hiding copies of his Jobs behind other films in nearby Blockbusters.
So which should you watch? Spoil yourself and watch both. They’re two very different films about two very different nerds, but they’re both good tales and you’ve got nothing better to do.
Steve Jobs: 6/10
Pawn Sacrifice: 7/10