William Jefferson Clinton
The Indigo Girls
(All as themselves)
Directed by Patrick Creadon
Creadon’s fascinating and entertaining look at America’s other favorite pastime, the crossword puzzle, is thoroughly enjoyable, whether or not you ever try to solve them.
This documentary examines the appeal of the New York Times crossword puzzle, by giving an in-depth look at editor Will Shortz, puzzle makers, celebrity fans like Bill Clinton and Jon Stewart, as well as the diverse contestants entered in the 28th Annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.
Two years ago, a barely seen documentary called Word Wars followed a group of skilled Scrabble players on their way through regional tournaments on their way to the national championships. It was a fun movie, not only due to the quirky personalities involved, but also in the way that it made you want to dig out your old Scrabble board after watching it. The same can be said about Patrick Creadon’s similarly titled documentary “Wordplay,” which is equally fascinating and entertaining in its examination of a pastime that people do every day without thinking much about what goes into making the puzzles or who else may be struggling to finish them.
For those oblivious to the fact that there even is a crossword puzzle in the pages of the New York Times, “Wordplay” begins with a quick introduction to Will Shortz, the Times’ puzzle editor for the past 13 years and the lynchpin to its continued success. Shortz, a regular on National Public Radio, has the type of personality and charm that makes it immediately obvious why so many crossword devotees know him by name. A lifelong puzzle enthusiast, Shortz majored in enigmatology (the study of puzzles) in college, before founding the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament (ACPT), held annually in Stamford, Connecticut since 1978.
Over the years, Shortz’ annual tournament has brought together a diverse group trying to put their skills to test by competing against each other. We’re introduced to a few of the top players, who names won’t mean much to anyone who doesn’t attend these tournaments. The common bond that connects the likes of nerdy Ellen Ripstein, pianist Jon Delfin, puzzle constructor Trip Payne and college student Tyler Hinman is their neverending obsession with words and puzzles. Al Sanders, who has placed third in the tournament for the last five years, even impresses us by showing us in real time how he can finish a crossword puzzle in just over two minutes.
Between the five featured contestants, there isn’t every much personality on display, which is why it’s smart that Creadon brings in a number of celebrity ringers to share their love of the pastime, including “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart, who plays up to the camera to get added laughs, filmmaker Ken Burns, and the Indigo Girls. Even former President Bill Clinton admits to his love for crosswords, having been duly impressed with the Times’ amazing ability to predict the outcome of the ’96 Presidential Election in its puzzle.
Whether or not you do crosswords regularly, it’s fascinating to watch master puzzle builder Merl Reagle’s step-by-step run-through of how he turns a simple idea into a completed puzzle, but it’s even more fun watching a few of the interviewees trying to solve that very same puzzle.
The documentary is constructed much like one of Reagle’s crossword puzzles using animated graphics and clever editing to keep things flowing with flawless seques that are as impressive as some of the crossword solving skills on display. Seconds after one person mentions Barry Bonds’ record, we see a clip of Bonds being struck out by Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina, who just happens to be a crossword enthusiast himself. It’s that kind of ingenious and reverential fun that keeps you smiling as you watch every minute of the movie.
As much fun as it is watching celebrities gush about crossword puzzles, the documentary really is about the tournament and its contestants, the last act being devoted to the 2005 contest. While it’s mostly an impartial look at a crossword nerd’s nirvana, few sports film have been able to capture the “agony of defeat” as well as this one does, as we watch Al Sanders make a costly mistake. The fact that we become so invested in these mundane people and their hobby is further proof how masterfully Creadon has done his job as a filmmaker.
The Bottom Line:
Whether you’re an avid crossword enthusiast, a part-time hobbyist or just someone bored with watching the year’s plethora of politically-charged docs, “Wordplay” is an enjoyable and entertaining distraction that makes crossword puzzles seem a hell of a lot cooler and hipper than they ever may have been in the past.
Wordplay opens in New York on Friday, June 16, and other cities in the weeks that follow.