Film Review: ‘Magnus’

Owen Gleiberman
Variety

How brain-boggling a chess virtuoso is Magnus Carlsen, the 25-year-old Norwegian prodigy and reigning World Chess Champion? In the light and lively portrait-of-a-genius documentary “Magnus,” Carlsen appears at Harvard University in 2013 to face off against 10 of the world’s greatest players in simultaneous games — and he does it blindfolded. That’s right: He plays all 10 games in his head at once. (Naturally, he wins all 10.) It’s been a long time since Bobby Fischer’s brainiac demon antics ruled the chess world, but his legend casts quite a shadow. When you first see Magnus Carlsen, who is the chess world’s most electrifying rock star since Fischer, there’s a natural tendency to wonder if this young man who lives inside the labyrinth of chess might also, like Fischer, be a spooky captive of his own mind.

But Magnus, it turns out, is the anti-Bobby: a fascinatingly “normalized” prodigy. He can, at times, be moody and distant, but his connection with others, especially the members of his family (whom he’s close to), is warmly visible. He’s casual, playful, smiling, and engaged. He also looks like a thick-browed Scandinavian Matt Damon, and he wears his handsomeness with well-tailored modesty. He seems like a mensch, which is a pretty cool thing for a cerebral wizard to be.

Magnus has been hailed as “the Mozart of chess,” because from a young age, his gift seemed like a spirit that was working through him. “Magnus” treats him like the Michael Jordan of chess — as someone who altered and heightened the game through his transcendent ability — and the movie assumes that a chronicle of Magnus’s rise will be enough to keep the audience hooked. That turns out to be the right call. 

He was born in 1990, into the age of nonstop home video, so his feats are all recorded. We see clips of Magnus when he’s four, already so lost in thought that he struggled with basic physical activities (like leaping over a stick) his siblings had no problem with. But at the chess board, seated there impassively as a child, he lights up. The film communicates how chess, in its endless permutations, could become an alternate universe to live inside — a fantasy-game world, like Dungeons & Dragons. As a teenager, Magnus attends a group tournament in Iceland where he gets to play Garry Kasparov, who was then the world’s top-ranked player and had been for 20 years; Magnus is ranked #786. It’s a thrilling match: Kasparov wins, but at several points he shakes his head in disbelief, a gesture that tells you this young man is matching him in audacity.

Magnus emerges, at 13, as the world’s youngest Grandmaster, and there’s a built-in drama to his rise to fame. Benjamin Ree, the director of “Magnus,” doesn’t dig much into his subject’s personal life, but he doesn’t need to. What we see is a young man living for an obsession. As Magnus admits to an interviewer, there’s some part of him that’s always thinking about chess (“Different fragments of games,” he says, “analyzing stuff in the background”), though he hastens to add, with a laugh, “I am not one of those borderline nutcases.” He also provides an explanation of what he takes in when he surveys a chessboard: He instantly sees the next move, because he glimpses the shape of where the game is headed, like a filmed projection of the future. There are moments he falls into a look of subtle anguish, and you realize: He’s not quite there — he’s on one of his journeys.

In 2013, Magnus journeys to Chennai, India, to face off against the reigning World Chess Champion, Viswanathan Anand, and their duel is terrifically suspenseful, with a mythological undercurrent. Anand, 20 years older than Magnus, still has the air of a boyish geek, and in his own way he’s a revolutionary: the first superstar of chess to have immersed himself in studying the game through computers. Anand has an entire team of Grandmasters working for him, and they use digital programs to deconstruct Magnus’s games. So even though the match will be mano a mano, it offers a twist on the proverbial man-vs.-computer chess question (which one is smarter?). In this case, Anand is the computer — he’s absorbed its knowledge into his own data bank. He’s an encyclopedic warrior of preparation. It’s Magnus’s challenge to undermine that mechanism by confronting Anand with enough assaultive surprise to disarm him.

It’s kind of like a boxing movie, but there’s a quirk built into any chess documentary: We can’t tell, from moment to moment, what’s going on in the games. The players speak an intellectual language we don’t. The story gets told, instead, by the players’ faces, and what happens in “Magnus” is that Magnus, after a few tentative games, winds up destroying Adnan by forcing him out of his computer-trained comfort zone. It’s galvanizing to see. One of the reasons that chess champions are such charismatic figures is that even though they belong to an elite club, they tell us something fundamental about ourselves, and our species. No one really knows why Bobby Fischer went off his rocker, but maybe one reason is that he was the first chess player to enter a certain stratosphere of perception. Magnus Carlsen, who is now the highest ranked player in the history of the game, lives in that same stratosphere, but with far more ease. That’s not just intelligence — it’s evolution.

Get more from Variety and Variety411: Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Newsletter