Wordplay (2006)

Word Play
Saw this with Grace and Penny last weekend, and it’s the best movie of the year for me so far. Like other good documentaries we’ve seen recently, this movie is really about people. What these people all have in common is that they love crossword puzzles, so we get to see Jon Stewart, Bill Clinton, Indigo Girls, Mike Mussina, and (my favorite of the bunch) Daniel Okrent working separately on the same puzzle — a puzzle we watched the puzzle-writer create! It was cool.

And those loonies who dominate the competition at the American Crossword Puzzle Championships are wonderful. Like anyone who’s geeky and passionate about something, these people are all interesting and impressive, each in different ways.

The film is put together really well, with close-ups of crossword grids being filled out and their clues suspended above in a split-screen, so that you can try to figure out a lot of the words as the solvers are figuring out words.

The “star,” I guess, is Will Shortz, the long-time editor of the New York Times Crossword Puzzle and a weekly contributor to NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday. He is the only person in the country with a degree in enigmatology (oh, if I’d only known!) and I love the easy way he moves among and about the puzzle-lovers he’s sort of the ringmaster for. A guy like this could be arrogant, especially among these people who knew who he was before he knew who they were, but he seems like a gentle, unassuming man. I want to be him.

My favorite thing about the documentary is the way it tries not only to get at what kind of people are devoted to the puzzles, but what it is in puzzles that such a diverse group of people connects with. I love when President Clinton explains that he seldom solves the puzzle from one end to the other, in order. He find the clues he feels pretty good about, fills the words in, and works from there, and says that in real-life situations with complex problems, we do the same thing — start with what we know, with what we’re familiar with, and proceed from there.

I have taught puzzle-solving in my math classes for as long as I’ve taught that subject, hoping that my students will learn that this is the reason we study mathematics — not to get the answer to some problem some textbook-writer came up with, but to learn to examine problems from different angles, to apply what we know and figure out the rest. When we get stumped, we consult with others, we check our resources, and we see if we can come up with at least a defensible solution.

The more I think about it, the more I think puzzles are both metaphor and method in education. Shortz explains that his approach in editing the puzzles is that if it’s something a reader of the Times would be interested in, it’s fair game for the puzzle, so he refuses to rule out pop culture or entertainment as subject matter. “This is life,” he seems to say.

I can’t wait to see this again.

posted by Mitchell August 9, 2006

1 Response to “Wordplay (2006)”

  1. Reid

    I saw this film recently, and I would give it a 6.

    I believe Penny and Grace liked it. What about the others? I think other idiots would like this film, although I don’t know how much. I didn’t identify as much with the people as Mitchell did, and I’m not as crazy about puzzles either. I thougtht of Don, and I think he would find the film interesting although I don’t know how much he would like it.

    To me, I thought the film bogged down with the profiles of the different crossword contestants. Mitchell says that there were all different, but I thought they were pretty similar (or at least the differences weren’t very interesting).

    The most interesting parts of the film were the discussions about building crosswords, the features of prominent people who love crosswords (I liked Daniel Okrent, too.) and the crossword competition at the end.

    The extras were also pretty cool, too especially the feature on some of the more interesting puzzles.

    (minor spoilers)

    I agree with Mitchell about the clever “tricks” the director tell his story (like the one Mitchell cites above). I also liked the fact that the director had a puzzle maker develop a puzzle for the film and then have some of the interviewees do the puzzle on camera.

    All in all this was an interesting and fairly entertaining documentary.

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