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Tobey Maguire did extensive research into chess champion Bobby Fischer’s mental health for Pawn Sacrifice.Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images

Ah, the vagaries of movie releasing. As TIFF winds down, this column was going to focus on a drama that premiered at the festival this past week, About Ray, whose subject matter is timely: a glimpse into family life with a transgender teen. But the Weinstein Company just bumped it to later this fall. So instead, I'm writing about Pawn Sacrifice, which played at TIFF a full year ago, yet is only now being released. That delay might work in its favour, however, because serendipitously, its subject matter is timelier than ever.

Pawn Sacrifice tells the true story of the 1972 chess championship match between the United States' Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) and the Soviet Union's Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber), which set the world on fire during one of the frostier phases of the Cold War. Like many sporting events, it was a surrogate for battle (viz: the blood on the ice four years earlier, during the Olympic hockey match between the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia). Only this time, the United States were the underdogs – the Soviets had a deep-pocketed training program, while the Americans had one stubborn genius whose nascent mental illness was beginning to show. And the prize was the world's ideological soul.

"I always felt this film had to have the structure of a sports movie, where you build to the big match, with a character study in the middle," Maguire said in a phone interview. "Then it's a layering process."

The first layer that makes Pawn Sacrifice resonate today is that tensions between the United States and Russia are the highest they've been in decades. It's no Cold War, certainly, but it isn't warm. Watching the Russians step out of black limos and into the Beverly Hilton in the film, you can't help but flash on current President Vladimir Putin striding around Sochi – or the Putin manqué who stomps through Season 2 of the Netflix series House of Cards.

The second layer is that of our global media culture. Fischer and Spassky were arguably the first two people who were "vaulted into being the focal point of the whole world, when no one had heard their names two weeks before," the film's director, Edward Zwick, said in a separate phone interview. Long before Twitter and YouTube, these two men went viral; long before reality TV, people clamoured to know more about them, and projected passionate hopes and beliefs onto them.

Then there's the layer of government surveillance. Fischer grew up in Brooklyn with a mother and her close friends who were members of the Communist Party. "I think the FBI had a thousand-page file on Bobby's mother," Zwick says. As his fame grew, Fischer became convinced (perhaps rightly) that the U.S. government was spying on him. In 1992, he played a rematch against Spassky in Yugoslavia in direct violation of a U.S. trade embargo.

Not unlike Edward Snowden, Fischer fled his country and sought asylum in a nation without extradition; he died in Iceland in 2008.

Also timely is our growing awareness of the toll sports takes on athletes. The HBO series Ballers; the upcoming Will Smith film Concussion; even the closed-camera footage of Ray Rice cold-cocking his fiancée in an elevator – all speak to the notion that our entertainment comes at a high price.

"Fischer's pride in the game of chess, his concern for its reputation and rules, his competitiveness, his mental toughness, all contain within them aspects that are a bit too extreme," Zwick says. "He famously said that chess is the destruction of one man's will by another. For a person like him, who clearly had some mental fragility, who had to focus 15 hours a day for 20 years and more – he was winning everything, but losing his mind. The thing that defined his life in the best way was probably also causal to his problems."

(Though Fischer wasn't diagnosed in his lifetime, whole books have been written about his mental health, based on the behaviour he displayed. Maguire interviewed several doctors about what that behaviour indicated, and read a psychobiography that suggested Fischer "displayed seven of eight traits that would qualify him as having paranoid personality disorder," he says.)

"We're fascinated with genius, and its shadow side," Zwick says. "Whether it's Mozart, John Nash, Nina Simone or Steve Jobs, we're drawn to try to understand, to decipher the code of and the price paid by extraordinary people."

But perhaps the timeliest aspect of Pawn Sacrifice is that of the state of stardom itself. I've just spent a week negotiating with publicists so I can sit down with actors in order to write stories that feed the public's curiosity. Watching Fischer – whom Zwick calls "maybe the least-prepared person to become a media star" – struggle to cope in the early days of our mania shows me how much and how little has changed.

"Fischer's particular qualities began a trend that only grew in media culture," Zwick says. "He was inappropriate, arrogant, with kind of a punk sensibility. I think we who follow celebrity are drawn to that part of a star that is heedless. We're most fascinated by what might be darkest in them."

Ironically, though, the film's timeliness was the only thing that didn't concern Maguire. "I never thought about highlighting one aspect or other to hit the zeitgeist," he says. "For me it's a classic story. One person in an extreme situation, versus another person. That's timeless."