I could have told you a few things about Bobby Fischer even before watching Liz Garbus' excellent, sympathetic yet clear-eyed documentary "Bobby Fischer Against the World," which premieres Monday on HBO: that Fischer was a world champion chess player; that he disappeared from view at the height of his fame; that he was in some sort of trouble with the government; that he was a fugitive; that he was crazy, or anyway said crazy things; that he died. These things were in the air once; you just breathed them in.
Still, they are only the bones of a story, and in terms of understanding a complicated character, not much better than knowing nothing at all. Garbus, director of the Oscar-nominated, Emmy-winning "The Farm: Angola, USA," fills in many of the blanks — to an impressive extent, given the obsessively guarded privacy of her subject — in a film that is both meditative and exciting, like the game it concerns, and mercilessly penetrating even as it reserves judgment on a man whose outrageousness practically demands it.
Fischer was a culture star in the late '60s and early '70s, a rangy kid from Brooklyn who, for a moment, made chess both sexy and patriotic — and, for the first time, profitable. For most Americans then and possibly now, Bobby Fischer was the game. He took the world championship from Boris Spassky in 1972 in a match, well recounted here, whose Cold War symbolism was understood even at the time: "This little thing with me and Spassky," he says here, "instead of, you know, with bombs we're having it out over the board." But even as the world celebrated him, he pulled away from it, becoming more obviously eccentric — not just incredibly demanding — and withdrawing into anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. (He was, many have noted, Jewish himself.)