As fate would have it, I was prevented by a contentious Wednesday afternoon sell-out from seeing my first choice of films (the new Leonard Cohen biography) this afternoon in Manhattan; I am a better man for this blockade, for it led me to see what is likely a much richer, informative, and entertaining documentary: first-time documentarian Patrick Creadon’s engaging look at crossword puzzle culture, Wordplay.
Although the film’s first act spotlights puzzle maven and New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz, the film wisely and agilely widens its radius to encompass personalities as diverse as John Stewart, Mike Mussina, and (as he is honorably billed in the credits) William Jefferson Clinton as they expound quite articulately on their relationship with and understanding of the crossword puzzle. With the exception of dome-haired ass-clown Ken Burns (whom Christopher Guest has been unintentionally, retroactively mocking for years), the interviewees’ commentaries are keen and illuminating. In perhaps the most provocative moments of the film, Clinton’s candor and intelligence make our current chief executive officer seem even more the dufus (if that is possible) by contrast. John Stewart is typically amusing in the ironic trash talk he hurls at Shortz through the camera while engaging in the latest challenging grid. Although a variety of puzzle philosophies are offered, one unifying tenet seems to be the unanimous respect and worship of the New York Times‘s crosswords puzzles as the long-standing pinnacle of the art form.
Plenty of hardcore puzzle enthusiasts earn due screen time, especially through the film’s final act, a play-by-play tour through the 2005 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, held each year since Shortz established the contest in 1978, in Stamford Connecticut. In this aspect, the film most resembles its obvious forerunner in contemporary American language-game documentaries, Jeffrey Blitz’s 2002 hit Spellbound â€” in this case, the focus is a more relaxed adult pastime rather than adolescent obsession. While Wordplay lacks the wonderfully taught suspense of Spellbound, its portrayal of people like Shortz who have followed their bliss and achieved rewarding success with a hobby is just as vital a glimpse into what sustains human happiness. Shortz, the ultimate example of this phenomenon, claims never to have expected the financial success (with dozens of books of puzzles in print) or minor fame (in the puzzle community he is a demagogue) that followed his graduation from Indiana University with a self-styled degree in “enigmatology” (the study of puzzles), but always expected to be rewarded by making his lifelong passion his line of work.
The film is most brilliant in how it uses innovative but sound tricks to keep what many would regard as banal subject matter consistently stimulating: crisp but unpretentious title sequence, effective and creative editing, and (like any great documentary) the luck to have captured a string of legitimately meaningful human moments on film. Most of all, it manages to be glossy without coming off as slick (or vice versa), insightful without seeming pedantic or condescending. It plays to all audiences, but especially to those already interested in puzzles or in trivia in general. Shortz put it best when he observed his greatest happiness being his privilege to work for both the Times and NPR, to create work for an audience he knows will appreciate and understand it.
Although it didn’t need it, the film’s excellent soundtrack only adds to its appeal. While the Indigo Girls’s affinity for the pastime is featured in the film, tunes from Cake, They Might Be Giants, and a charming cover of The Talking Heads’s “Naive Melody” performed by Shawn Colvin somehow lend even more credibility to the project, in that in choosing to share their craft with the filmmaking process, the musicians likewise submit their genuine approval of its aims and merits.
Anyone who has ever wondered how a crossword is constructed (those who write them are known as “constructors”, not authors), or has ever tried, will no doubt gain some appreciation for the talent and dedication it requires, even as professional constructor Merl Reagle drafts one from scratch for the camera with apparent ease. Like Spellbound and The Stone Reader, Wordplay will surely make any lover of words and language quite pleased. No hard feelings, Leonard.