MAGNUS, chess player

Last Updated: April 14, 2017By Tags: , ,

TRIBECA FESTIVAL, New York – In all seventy-six minutes of Benjamin Ree’s new documentary “Magnus” I’m not sure if I can remember ever seeing Magnus Carlsen, the world’s highest ranked chess player, ever smiling during a game. He smiles plenty when he wins, but that’s not the same. During the games his eyes scrunch up and his face tightens into a mask of marbled concentration. The happiest we ever see him is when he tears himself away from the obsession that turned him into a child prodigy and later into one of the greatest chess players who ever lived—dancing to silly songs with his sisters, reading Donald Duck comics, relaxing on the sofa with his family. The portrait we gather from “Magnus” is of a young man who does what he does not because he enjoys it but because he is good at it.

Who can blame him? A withdrawn and bullied child, chess gave Magnus an opportunity to feel like he was worth something. But it also gave him something every child craves: proof of their own superiority over their peers. When he played chess he was a superman, an apt comparison considering how his capacity for calculating moves and memorizing matches has been literally likened to computers. Magnus admits that he almost always has chess floating around in the back of his mind. But again, is the impetus enjoyment or necessity?

There’s a very subtle undercurrent to “Magnus,” one that might be easily missed: since childhood Magnus has always been under intense scrutiny as becomes apparent from the massive amount of footage from his childhood shown in the film. But very little of it consists of the usual home movie shots of birthdays and vacations. It’s mostly images of him staring off into the distance, reading alone in his room, isolating himself from his family. Why did Ree capture so much of this footage? Why was he so intent on chronicling his sadness?

Watching “Magnus,” I realized what a fitting companion piece it would make for Justin Krook’s documentary of EDM DJ Steve Aoki “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead.” Both films debuted this year at Tribeca and both focus on undisputed geniuses who hit the big time in their youth. And tragically, it’s impossible to tell if either of them gets any pleasure from what they do. Certainly Aoki loves the performing and Magnus loves the winning. But on the plane rides between gigs and in the silences between moves, both Aoki and Magnus seem to disappear.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Nate Hood is Screen Comment’s main film critic in New York. Follow him here @NateHood257

Read also: “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” Nate Hood’s take on the documentary about Steve Aoki, the world’s top-grossing DJ.



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