As I mentioned in my review of A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION,
my friend Craig is a big fan of National Public Radio (NPR) and often
sends me links to programs he thinks will be of interest to me.
Well, I'm sure he's familiar with Will Shortz, a contributor to NPR,
the crossword editor of The New York Times and the founder of the
annual American Crossword Tournament. Shortz is also one of the
main players in the new documentary WORDPLAY, Patrick Creadon's
breezy and enjoyable documentary about crossword puzzles and
the people (famous and not) who love to do them.
During my formative years, my mom liked to do the crossword
puzzle in the local paper, and eventually I started to complete them
as well. By the time I got to college, I was hooked on the puzzles
in The New York Times, especially the Sunday magazine. Over time,
as the demands of life have taken over, I've stopped doing them.
Watching this film made me nostalgic for lazy weekends curled up
with a cup of coffee and the crossword.
Initially WORDPLAY was conceived as a profile of Shortz,
who even as a young man was drawn to the world of puzzles and
words. As he tells it, he designed his own curriculum as an
undergraduate, majoring in enigmatology, that is, the art of making
and/or solving enigmas. But Creadon expanded the scope of the
film to incorporate a brief history of the puzzle, its standardization
in the 1940s (with rules like no two-letter words), and an example
of how a puzzle is designed. The latter thanks to Merl Reagle, one of
the acknowledged masters of the genre. Creadon also interviews
numerous famous individuals who are aficionados of crosswords
ranging from former president Bill Clinton to professional baseball
player Mike Mussina to documentary filmmaker Ken Burns.
Additionally, Creadon profiles several of the competitors in
the Annual Crossword Tournament held at the Marriot in Stamford,
Connecticut. These people include past winners Ellen Ripstein and
Trip Payne as well as perpetual also-ran Al Sanders and relative
newcomer Tyler Hinman whom one of the judges jokingly refers
to as "the seven-year old.") Creadon manages to tease out the
tension of the competition without losing sight of the individual
There are also flashy graphics by Brian Oakes that incorporate
some of the puzzles given to the competitors. Creadon has crafted a
film that captures the pleasures and fun of doing a crossword puzzle.
On paper, it may appeal only to a select audience, but WORDPLAY is
an enjoyable and even informative film that should find a wide audience.
MPAA Rating: PG for some language and
mild thematic elements
Running time: 94 mins.
Viewed at the Tribeca Film Festival
|© 2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.