Friday, 2 October 2015

A Based-on-True-Events Peter Sarsgaard Doubleheader: Black Mass and Pawn Sacrifice

Black Mass

Johnny Depp as we’ve never seen him before (and we’ve seen him do some pretty crazy things)! This time Depp plays Irish gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, who took over crime in South Boston in the 1970’s with the help of FBI agent John Connelly (Joel Edgerton), with whom Bulger had grown up. Connelly was supposedly using Bulger to bring down the Italian mafia in Boston, which Connelly succeeded in doing, but Black Mass suggests Connelly’s motives were never very pure.

Scott Cooper’s film is based on a true story and it’s structured in an interview-in-the-future style which often works well. And Depp’s performance as the sinister mobster is outstanding - one of his best in this century. The rest of the cast is also wonderful, including Benedict Cumberbatch as Bulger’s brother Billy (a senator) and Peter Sarsgaard in a small role as someone who couldn’t keep his mouth shut about what Bulger was doing. Even Edgerton impressed me. And the cinematography and score were great. 

Sounds like a good film so far, you say, but apparently acting, cinematography and score are not enough. Black Mass is an ice cold clinical film that tells this horrific story in a way that utterly failed to engage me. I have absolutely no interest in these gangsters, especially Bulger. Of course, as I’ve said here before, I don’t like gangster films. So enough said. Despite enjoying Depp’s gripping performance, I have no interest in seeing Black Mass again. I must therefore give it only **+, even if it objectively deserves more. My mug is down.

Pawn Sacrifice

Pawn Sacrifice tells the true story of chess master Bobby Fischer, beginning with his childhood (he was the youngest grandmaster at age 15), then focusing on his attempt to become the greatest chess player in the world and culminating in his best-of-24 series with Boris Spassky in Reykjavik, Iceland in 1972, the most famous chess match in history (after which Fischer dropped off the map).

Tobey Maguire plays Fischer and does a great job conveying a young genius suffering from paranoia and making ever-more-eccentric demands on those who want (need) him to play. The fact that the FBI is shown monitoring his movements and that the American government viewed Fischer’s match with Spassky (Live Schreiber) as a key moment in the Cold War with Russia makes it clear that Fischer had reason to be paranoid. He was the pawn being sacrificed at any cost to show that the U.S. could beat the Russians at anything.  

At Fischer’s side for much of his championship play were Paul Marshall, a lawyer who acted as Fischer’s manager, and William Lombardy, a priest who was a great chess player himself. Michael Stuhlbarg and Peter Sarsgaard do an excellent job playing these men who try to both support and encourage Fischer when Fischer’s behaviour grow increasingly erratic. 

Directed By Edward Zwick and written by Steven Knight (who wrote Locke), Pawn Sacrifice is well-structured and tight, capturing the feel of the early 70’s very well. While Fischer’s character is fairly well-developed, I would have liked a deeper analysis of his illness. Other character were not very well-developed and I was disappointed that there wasn’t a greater attempt to tell us more about Fischer’s relationships (especially with his family). The cinematography and score were excellent. 

I found Pawn Sacrifice to be a very entertaining and compelling based-on-true-events film, especially after watching Black Mass. So even if it should have been a deeper film, Pawn Sacrifice gets ***+. My mug is up.

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