By Thomas Larson
This 2019 film is set in Poland against the backdrop of the Cold War during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. The story uses the allegory of a chess match between the USA and USSR during a critical point in the Cold War. The movie follows a former American chess prodigy who is now a drunk, gambling addicted, math professor. He represents the American people during the time of the Cold War, only informed of the bare minimum to function.
Set in Poland, the film pays homage to the Polish people. Alfred the Director of the palace repeatedly says, “Hospitality runs in our blood.” This is the pivotal point of the film as it focuses on how the land and people of Poland were treated during the Cold War. The nation was used and abused by the Soviets and sometimes by the USA. The film reveals that abuse in many ways. The most prominent case was the use of infrastructure against the better judgement of the Polish.
The film centers around the chess game. Despite knowing little about chess, I found it quite absorbing. Serving only as a framework, it adds little to the story line, but if you are interested in the chess game, it would only distract you. The only part of the game that was important was who won each match.
As an American I watched and understood the scenes involving Soviet military officials, but I was not entertained. Soviet men were made to look better than is taught by US history books. It tried to make them relatable and understandable. For an English language film however, it makes little sense as all English-speaking nations adamantly opposed the USSR and communism. Halfway through the film, Soviet soldiers become the protagonists, except for one man who defects. While making the Soviets seem relatable is an understandable goal, I feel the film missed its mark, especially in attempting to show the destruction of Poland under Soviet control with a single scene. While it provided additional information and character development, the setting was awkward and confusing.
A number of issues are present in the movie. Several scenes in the US embassy in Poland took place in a sound chamber with secure channels to the President. Although an interesting set, it isn’t explained until the last scene. It doesn’t detract from the fascination, but it is an odd way of telling the story. Despite what I know about Cold War politics, it took me a while to fully grasp what was going on. I would not expect the average American to know what the soundproof chamber was, and I highly suspect that European audiences would be confused without an explanation.
The end of the film is not well planned. The main character walks out of a military hanger with no one else present. If you have any knowledge of the era or took note of the security present throughout the film, it raises an unanswered question. The last portion was a plea to action that I think was a bit tacky. Its message is that the deals that ended the Cold War were poorly designed and barely maintained today. The film argues the importance of nuclear disarmament and calls for the disposal of nuclear weaponry. It is in no way connected to the rest of the film and could have been eliminated.
I enjoyed the film. It illustrates a turbulent time in American politics from a foreign perspective. I valued it and feel the time was well spent watching it. However, I would not likely watch it again nor would I buy the movie if it were not a part of my Netflix subscription.