I suppose it goes without saying that chess may not be the first sport to come to mind, when the average person thinks of thrilling, suspenseful sports docudrama; so it’s a good thing that Magnus managed to maintain a chess player’s focus on its most driven players, rather than the sport, itself.
With chess serving as a tool & outlet, for some of the sharpest minds anywhere, it has been rare for outsiders to get a real look into the inner workings of a Chess Grandmaster. By the time the title is achieved, the subject is often too withdrawn, or too polished a commodity, to be truly accessible.
In that respect, Magnus had a bit of serendipity going for it.
Before the Selfie & Youtube generation, there was the video generation; a generation that figured if ‘a picture was worth a thousand words’ (courtesy of the Polaroid generation), then video had to be priceless. Well, presumably thanks to that mindset, Henrik Carlsen began filming the daily exploits of his new family. Upon review, a very young Magnus Carlsen’s unique qualities became first a cause for concern, then a presented opportunity. The convergence of Henrik Carlsen’s video journal enthusiasm, and his recognition of Magnus’ potential, would provide decades of recorded material – without which this documentary would not likely have been possible. Not at its presented depth, anyway.
That depth made Magnus, the subject, a fascinating figure. What made Magnus, the film, compelling was that it allowed un-initiates to see the contest through its participants’ eyes, and made the consequent highs, lows, and stressful in-betweens universally relatable for what they were, as opposed to what they were pertaining to.
The film succeeds by being as focused as its subject. We do get extended looks into Magnus’ family life – the wealth of home movie footage providing valuable context to these behind the scenes moments – and time is given to the interpersonal challenges of being a true genius. This did more than flesh out the subject of the film – it also lent itself to a narrative which extended to his colleagues and opponents, as well. Through the study of Magnus, we got some idea as to the inner workings of rivals like Garry Kasparov & Viswanathan Anand.
That genius also painted the picture of a world beyond most of us – making for a clash between mythical figures, and providing some genuine tension to the contests. The use of technology, profiling science, and opposition research made it clear that (at least for those involved) high stakes come with the territory; but the fact that Magnus refused resorting to any of these measures – and the fact that it cost him, at times – made for an underdog narrative worthy of fiction.
A work of fiction, I might add, reminiscent of Rocky IV (the full resources of the Soviet State vs Rocky’s Spartan approach), and starring a younger Matt Damon (I saw it the moment adult Magnus came on screen – couldn’t shake it).
Anyone familiar with the persons & events involved knew how that narrative would end, and the unfamiliar could likely guess; but the intensity of the players, their fans, and general game enthusiasts sold its dramatic component. The intensity of the film’s focus made for some relief, at the end; the depth of its focus on Magnus allowed us to feel something for his post-climactic experience.
Overall, an effective blend of in-depth subject profile, narrow subject conflict, and universally appreciable resolution.
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