You might ask: why would anybody make a movie about crossword puzzles, and why would anybody want to see it? Okay, fair enough. But whereas The DaVinci Code was a movie about puzzles that forgot to be about people, the new documentary Wordplay isn’t about crosswords, but the people who love them. It is a delightful film about smart people at play, with some things to say about thinking itself.
The New York Times crossword is the gold standard in the puzzling world, and Will Shortz, the Puzzle Editor for the Times and NPR’s Weekend Edition Puzzle Master, is a rock star. He spends ten to twelve hours a day making or solving puzzles. I imagine he would do this if they didn’t pay him. As with so many of the movie’s colorful cast, he says he caught the bug as a child. When he got to college, no doubt with that twinkle already in his eye, Shortz convinced Indiana University to allow him a self-created major: "enigmatism," or the study of puzzles.
What kind of person is drawn to crossword puzzles? Shortz says, "People who hunger for solutions." The greatest solvers come from the ranks of musicians and mathematicians – people who can think fluidly through a complex problem. Bill Clinton, one of several celebrity solvers interviewed, compares working out a crossword to problems of state. He says you focus on what you know and keep at it until the whole thing unravels for you. We see him ponder four across: is the answer to the question about a missile "ICBM," or "MERV"? I’m sure the filmmakers wanted to get George Bush solving a puzzle, but he was busy.
Though Shortz writes about half the clues himself, he is abetted by men like Merle Reagle, the Times’ ace "constructor". Reagle says he spends most of his day thinking about puzzles. He drives by a Dunkin’ Donuts. "Move the "D" to the end, and you get ‘Unkind Donuts,’" he says. "Swap the ‘a’ and the ‘s’ in ‘Noah’s Ark,’" and you get "No! A Shark!"
In a fascinating scene, we watch Reagle create a puzzle from scratch. He shares his thought process as he does so; he is thinking at right angles to the way solvers think. Contrary to our assumptions, puzzles aren’t really a solitary activity. They are an interaction between the minds of their constructors and their solvers, who share a game where the puzzle is the toy and the language. One champion player dares to say that when minds connect, it’s art.
Perhaps Will Shortz’ greatest innovation was to make crossword puzzling social. Twenty-eight years ago, he founded the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. It has all the excitement of a sporting event – except that only minds, and pen tips, are moving. Patrick Creadon, the director of Wordplay , has a big bag of graphic tricks to make this cinematic, and he sustains a reasonable dramatic tension. Will Ellen Ripstein, who can’t always catch a baton but can solve the Sunday puzzle in eight minutes, make it to the finals? Will Tyler, the twenty-year-old phenom, beat Trip, the driven favorite, to become the youngest-ever champion? Will Al, perhaps the fastest solver – but who has never placed higher than third — defeat himself in the mind game?
But more important, we get to see these quick-tongued, bright-eyed people reunited each year with others who think in the same unique ways. "It’s like we have our own tribe," says one. An invitation to share in that joyful world of jousting, dancing minds is one we accept with pleasure.
Wordplay is playing at Showplace East. This and other theater and music reviews are available online at wfiu.indina.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.