Directed by Patrick Creadon
Wordplay is a documentary about a crossword puzzle tournament. Hey, get back here!
Okay, so I admit it's probably impossible to make a truly great movie about a subject as solitary, cerebral, and ultimately frivolous as crosswords. But first-time feature director Patrick Creadon has created what I think real film critics term a "good little movie"--nothing that's going to change your view of the world forever, but worth a moviegoer's time by a healthy margin, and likely to become the film on its chosen subject for many years to come.
Actually, Creadon has created not merely a good little movie, but a very good little movie, which might translate into an extra half-star on a four-star scale. What pushes the film into "very good" territory is very good fortune: "We got real lucky in a hundred ways while filming this," Creadon told me. The most important two of those hundred are:
Lucky Break #1: Creadon happened to choose 2005 as the year he'd chronicle the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament (ACPT). By virtually unanimous consent among veterans, 2005's final championship round turned out to be the most exciting in the 28-year history of the annual competition, and Creadon got the whole thing on tape--including the bizarre, no-way-that-just-happened final twist that wound up deciding the winner.
Lucky Break #2: In the months before the competition, Creadon traveled around the country, camera in tow, profiling nine tournament entrants at their homes. He'd been steered toward these nine by ACPT director Will Shortz based on who Shortz felt had the best shot at winning. Four of the nine entrants' stories were left on the cutting room floor, since they did not wind up fitting into the film's ultimate narrative; but two of the five who did make the cut were highly fortunate selections who might reasonably have been left off the original list. I can't say more without ruining the ending, but Wordplay would have been severely diminished if these two hadn't been among the original nine selected for profiling.
A movie about a crossword puzzle tournament needs padding to get to 94 minutes, and Wordplay's padding is fine fur indeed: an eclectic crew of celebrities talking about their crossword puzzle experiences. What a slate Creadon somehow managed to recruit: Bill Clinton expounding on matters cruciverbal (asked why people solve crosswords, he replies, "I don't know, they're just fun," which is actually the correct answer); Bob Dole in lovable loser mode ("the whole 1996 election was a puzzle to me"); and Daily Show host Jon Stewart solving a Times crossword and repeatedly threatening Shortz when the clues get too "cute," as Stewart puts it. Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina and folk duo Indigo Girls also make worthwhile appearances, and Creadon generally elicits meaningful crossword thoughts from his celebrity subjects that add real value to the film. The one exception is Ken Burns, whose rather overwrought comments about crossword puzzles' role in society might well have been omitted.
Wordplay began in its director's mind as a film about Shortz and the New York Times crossword, but early in the process (according to Creadon), "Will told me, 'Look, this tournament is a big part of my life, so if you're going to make a movie about me, it should be about the tournament, too.'" The ACPT was started in 1978 by the genial and media-savvy Shortz, who was then a 25-year-old law school escapee earning $10,000 a year working at a puzzle magazine company. Today he is crossword editor at the Times, and, 28 years after he first christened it, Shortz is still directing the ever-growing competition.
One hundred and forty-nine people attended that first tournament, about a third of the number that has been showing up in recent years. Wordplay may change that dramatically; one crossword insider told me he wouldn't be surprised if the ACPT doubled in size next year. Entrants solve seven puzzles over the weekend, which tournament judges score using a system based on the solvers' accuracy and speed. The top three scorers then compete in a tense final round on oversized dry-erase board crossword grids before a packed-house audience.