Magnus is a good watch that, frustratingly, actively resists being a great documentary.
Disclosure: this review is based on a screener copy that was sent to me by Arrow Films, the film’s UK distributor.
I want to hesitate using the term “puff piece” when I talk about Magnus, the new documentary about World Chess Champion and child prodigy Magnus Carlsen by director Benjamin Ree. A “puff piece” connotates something completely devoid of any value, depth, or effort – a piece of “journalism” that purely involves regurgitating the facts with little discernible effort or interrogation, and only the most slathering of language utilised in order to uncritically fawn over the subject in question. Magnus, in a way, doesn’t particularly satisfy that criteria, not least because it’s very clearly been lovingly laboured over into the version of the film that exists for you to buy and watch right now.
But, at the same time, I feel like such a term is accurate enough to throw at the film, given how it is a very shallow and uncritically superficial documentary that doesn’t have particularly much to offer to those not already interested in Magnus or the game of chess itself. What’s worse is that Magnus could very easily have become a great documentary if only it didn’t actively steer itself away from being so. The main crux of the film is your traditional underdog sports story, albeit this time absolutely true with no embellishments given the documentary format, but all of the more interesting aspects are found on the fringes of the film.
The opening passages charting Magnus’s rise through the chess world are narrated and mostly experienced through the view of his father, who openly mentions looking for exceptional talents in his children at a young age, and becomes the primary driving force in pushing Magnus more fully into fostering his chess talents. This could lead to an examination of parental control, the relationship between father and son, how the former helped the latter deal with defeat and pushed him to aim higher and try harder, and perhaps whether there were less magnanimous motives at play, but none of these are ever explored. Magnus briefly mentions how he was a victim of bullying and social isolation at school, but that’s all it boils down to: a mention. Meanwhile, his eventual unlikely crossing over into the world of fashion modelling, with his boyish good looks and classically handsome face, are reserved for about 20 seconds of screen time during the end credits.
There are so many other potential avenues that Magnus the film could have gone down, but at every turn it goes for the simpler, more crowdpleasing story. Relatedly, and far more crucially, the film fails to sketch a complex portrait of Magnus himself. There’s no attempt to properly explore his psyche, his methodology in chess, what really drew him to chess beyond his father recognising that, as a child, he was obsessed with a LEGO truck. The film doesn’t even bother to explain exactly what makes him such an accomplished and unique chess player for those who aren’t well-versed in chess and can therefore figure it out themselves, preferring instead to just parrot the phrase “the Mozart of chess” over and over again as if the fourteenth time that it is mentioned will be when it suddenly becomes filled with epiphanically-laced meaning. Rather, Magnus is painted as nothing more than a brilliant if slightly-awkward and easily-rattled “aaw-shucks” kind of guy who simply wants to be the best in the world at what he does.
Now, that works for a simplistic underdog sports drama, but it doesn’t exactly make for a great documentary. The best documentaries, after all, paint complex portraits of their subjects that find interesting avenues of discussion and themes that can resonate in viewers not typically interested in that field or subject. Think of how Senna is an absolutely fascinating documentary even for those who aren’t interested in Formula 1 through themes of national pride, justifiable egotistical hubris, and politics diluting the purity of competitive sport, for example. So, as a documentary in that respect, Magnus is an incontestable failure.
That said, Magnus is not an unenjoyable watch because, well, it’s an underdog sports movie, and I have a soft spot within me for underdog sports movies. After the opening 20 minutes, which compress Magnus’s early youth and rise through the ranks into what effectively ends up as an extended prologue, the film then shifts to depicting Magnus’s participation in the 2013 World Chess Championships, as he finally gets a shot at becoming the World’s #1 Chess Player. It’s a tale as old as time – a naturally gifted child prodigy, incredibly brilliant and successful but prone to mistakes and being rattled by the pressure at the worst possible moments, eventually coming face-to-face with the undefeated five-time champion, Viswanathan Anad, who contrasts our hero’s natural skill by being his super-prepared tech-reliant opposite in every way – and it’s still entertaining to watch even after all these years for exactly the reasons you’d expect it to be.
Even here, once the film reaches those crucial games against Anad, the vestiges of a great film make themselves known as the relentless pressure starts to get to Magnus. The editing of the first half of that match takes on a quietly pacey pulse, with Magnus being locked into this vicious cycle of difficult game after difficult game, each flanked on all sides by hounding press, and every game being followed by yet another press conference combining to send the boy into something approaching a tailspin. There’s a particularly great cut just before the first game, where we go from the relatively quiet yet suffocating room that Magnus is playing in to the loud manic throng of the media on the other side of the glass that conspire to keep him anything but calm. Outside of this, there are also a few sequences that are astounding even to somebody without a grasp on the finer points of chess (such as myself) – a young Magnus stumping chess legend Garry Kasparov for a full minute before responding to Kasparov’s move near-instantaneously, and his playing 10 simultaneous games of blindfolded chess (and winning) are particular highlights.
Mostly, though, I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that Magnus should have been a great documentary rather than a good watch. Even if I were to forgive the constant feints towards a vastly more interesting movie than the one that I got, I can’t fully forgive a documentary that doesn’t explore the subjects at its centre in any particular depth. Again, Magnus is not a bad watch, and I’d hesitate to call it a bad movie, but it is, for all intents and purposes, a puff piece. Not a film that I’d advise against throwing on when it hits Netflix or the like, but also not something I’d recommend going out of your way to watch either. It’s an enjoyable way to pass 75 minutes, but not much more than that.
Magnus is available to buy on DVD and Digital Download from 12th December.
Callie Petch is a king and you’re their queen.