Can anyone make watching chess exciting? If you’re writer/director Steven Zaillian you can. In SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER, chess is the backdrop for this moving story of a young chess wiz (Max Pomeranc) who is caught between the rigidity of rules from his renowned coach (Ben Kingsley), the sheer joy of the game from a local hustler (Laurence Fishburne) in Washington Square Park, and the opposing views of his parents (Joe Mantegna and Joan Allen). This heartwarming and emotionally riveting film moves on the beautiful strains of James Horner’s lovely score.
Horner’s sound is still very much in line with other scores of the period like FIELD OF DREAMS. (You’ll also find the seeds of Horner’s later overrated score for A BEAUTIFUL MIND.) Mystically shimmering strings give a sense that the rules of chess are too difficult for us mere mortals, while the comfortable Americana harmonies convey a feeling familial love.
My favorite cue covers three interlinked scenes as Josh’s father awakens to the fact that he may have been wrong in pushing Josh to compete. Plaintive solo flute and oboe lines underscore Dad putting Josh’s trophies in his room with an apologetic “These are yours.” Dad then takes Josh to Washington Square Park and lifts his restrictions on playing speed chess with Vinnie. The woodwind, harp and piano triplets swirl like chess moves furiously scattered among the neurons of Josh’s young mind. The music accelerates and gains force as the cellos join the push toward a cymbal flourish and the main theme soars over the scene in the violins. The hemiola effect between the warring musical lines subliminally conveys the opposing forces at work in the story, but the emotion of the moment overrides everything. The music winds down and closes quietly in the father’s darkened office.
I don’t remember why I went to see BOBBY FISCHER when it was released. Believe me, I was one of the few who did. Looking back all these years later, I can only think that it had to do with Horner’s score. I can count on one hand the times I went to a film strictly because a particular composer scored it. BOBBY FISCHER is one of those rare instances. I’m so glad I did. A beautiful film and one of Horner’s best.