The opening scene of Wordplay (2006) shows the Marriott Hotel in Stamford, CT. The same Stamford that was my hometown for 15 developmental years of my life. The same Marriott where my family had a pool membership one summer. And all throughout this documentary, people speak of Stamford in reverent tones as the Valhalla of the nation’s greatest crossword puzzle solvers. Founded by New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz, the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament has met in Stamford every year since 1978. In Stamford, wow! My only disappointment is that they don’t show anything in Stamford other than the drab interiors of the Marriott.
I enjoy a crossword puzzle now and again, but I’m not big into them, however I do really enjoy documentaries about geeky people with obsessions. Wordplay did not disappoint. The first half of the film profiles Shortz, some of the crossword constructors who submit puzzles to the Times, and several of the country’s top puzzle solvers. They all appear to be affable people, all with talents in other areas (one’s a pianist, another twirls baton), but with an underlying current of arrogance. A number of celebrity crossword fans are featured as well including comic Jon Stewart, filmmaker Ken Burns, and former Orioles pitching ace Mike Mussina. The Indigo Girls’ Amy Ray compares puzzle-solving to songwriting and has great line about writer’s block. Bill Clinton and Bob Dole both appear to talk about the 1996 election crossword in the Times that worked with either one of their names.
The second part of the film follows the action at the 2005 tournament in Stamford. It turns out to be surprisingly compelling drama to watch the contestants solving puzzles with the clock ticking. SPOILER ALERT: An affable Coloradan named Al Sanders is a perpetual runner-up who’s never won the tournament. He manages a great come-from-behind effort to get himself into the finals only to muck it up big time. Worse, a snot-nosed frat boy named Tyler Hinman ends up winning the whole thing. END SPOILER ALERT.
The DVD includes some fun extras including short features on some of the Times most memorable puzzles (which one can download from the DVD-ROM).