"The best movie made about and for children since 'E.T.'"
Little Josh Waitzkin (Max Pomeranc), all of seven years old, gets bitten by the chess bug in New York’s Washington Square when he stumbles on the “speed chess” matches.Josh, it turns out, is a genuine prodigy, pushed forward by his well-meaning sportswriter dad Fred (Joe Mantegna) and tutored by street master Laurence Fishburne and bitter ex-champ Ben Kingsley. Josh is terribly confused by the conflicting philosophies he’s getting from his three mentors, and the movie briefly threatens to teeter into precious Little Man Tate territory.
It recovers, though, when we meet a contemptuous little chess whiz (Michael Nirenberg) whose idea of fun is chortling at other people’s dumb moves. Josh squares off against this cold princeling, but by then we’ve started to find the opponent less bratty — he seems hollow, bored with this game he happens to be great at. He, not Josh, is the true “next Bobby Fischer.”
Rookie director Steven Zaillian has a writer’s gift for finding the thread of meaning in a story, and the film is an intelligently crafted celebration of introspection and decency. Zaillian also manages to make a compelling film in which we are looking at (A) people playing chess or (B) people talking about playing chess.Pomeranc is a find, and Mantegna has a couple of great in-joke scenes with fellow David Mamet alumnus William H. Macy as a worried “chess dad.”