Starring: Will Shortz, Bill Clinton, Jon Stewart, Ken Burns, Mike Mussina, Bob Dole, The Indigo Girls, Ellen Ripstein, Trip Payne, Tyler Hinman, Jon Delfin, Al Sanders, Mel Reagle, Daniel Okrent
Director: Patrick Creadon
First off, I must point out that I am not a crossword player. The only times I’ve ever done them is if I’m bored and one is in front of me, and then I give up quickly and have never completed one in my life. So I didn’t watch this movie as a fan, or as someone looking to see my life and interests on the big screen, and I couldn’t completely relate to the world these people live in or the pleasure they get out of what they do. And yet, I loved this movie. Since it’s already late July, I’m gonna go ahead and call it the best movie of the summer, which is as much about praising this movie as it is about condemning the worst summer movie season in years.
What a delightful documentary, full of engaging, well-spoken, and passionate people who allow us into their lives without coming off as pedantic freaks. Director Patrick Creadon presents to us the world of crossword fanatics by introducing us to Will Shortz, editor of the infamous New York Times crossword puzzle. A life-long puzzle enthusiast, Shortz actually holds a degree in Enigmatology (the study of puzzles) from Indiana University. If only Edward Nigma knew about that degree, he may never have turned to a life of crime.
In creating the daily puzzles for the Times, Shortz accepts submissions from different puzzle constructors like Merl Reagle, who we watch put together a puzzle. That was pretty interesting, as I guess I thought they were done by computers. Instead, Reagle works with a theme (“Word Play”), working it into major building block words, then having to work around them when issues like double vowel word constructions come up. Who knew that it took more work to put together a crossword than it does to finish one?
The advertising for the movie bills the stars of this movie as Shortz, Bill Clinton, Jon Stewart, Ken Burns, Mike Mussina, Bob Dole, and The Indigo Girls, and each do appear and give interesting interviews on their enjoyment of crossword puzzles (Stewart is particularly entertaining, while Clinton makes me wistful for a president that can do the Times crossword in pen, instead of one who would probably have to staff out the Jumble). However, the real stars of the film are the ordinary competitors of the Crossword championship hosted by Shortz every year at the Stamford Marriot. Unlike the Scrabble mutants of Word Wars, these are ordinary folk (albeit on the nerdier side of the spectrum), with real lives and real jobs who happen to enjoy doing crosswords, and do them well.
It helps that to be good at crosswords, one must have a wider range of information in your head then a simple, myopic concentration on the English language. Thus, instead of meeting misfits who barely hold down jobs because their obsession takes up all their time, we meet Jon Delfin, seven time crossword champion and accomplished pianist, Ellen Ripstein “The Susan Lucci of Crosswords” who took 18 years to finally win a championship, three-time champion Trip Payne who also works as a puzzle constructor, college student and young upstart Tyler Hinman, and Al Sanders, a seven-time finalist who has finished third in five of the past six years. Each of the featured contestants are likable, amiable, self-deprecating intellectuals who are fun to watch and possess the right amount of self-awareness for what they do. They don’t think being good at puzzles makes them superior people, but enjoy the mental exercise for what it is.
Above all, the crossword championship event (where contestants all do the same puzzle at the same time, receiving points for speed of play and losing points for errors) is a social event for people of this little sub-culture. They get to meet up with other people with the same passion once a year, and seem to have a great time doing so. That sense of fun and good-naturedness permeates throughout the movie, making it an enjoyable evening for all who watch it. It provides an excellent glimpse into the world of puzzles and those who love them, and even gives the viewer a crack at some clues, making it an interactive movie akin to playing along with Jeopardy. I highly recommend you seek this one out, as I can’t imagine you not enjoying yourself while watching it, even if, like me, you’ve never completed a crossword puzzle in your life.