Rated PG; Directed by Patrick Creadon
Ah, the mighty crossword. This type of puzzle has addictive powers – just ask those who religiously do battle with the New York Times crossword puzzle every day. But still, a movie about those folks? Surprisingly, this enjoyable documentary about the crossword puzzle is not some boring history of the puzzle, but a funny and even dramatic look at the people who do obsess about crosswords.
Regular NPR listeners know who Will Shortz is. As the editor of the New York Times crossword puzzle he also conducts the Sunday morning puzzle on NPR. As editor of the most famous crossword puzzles Shortz is the center of this film. We find out what it takes to achieve his place in the world of puzzle-making.
The film does give us a short history of crossword puzzles, but the fun lies in the current state of the “game”. Wordplay focuses not only on Shortz’s work as editor, but also as the creator and host of the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. And what a tournament!
We meet some of the main competitors as they prepare for the tournament. There is a teenage hotshot determined to win. There are past-winners who continue to compete. One gentleman is a competitor who hopes that he can finally achieve better than a third place finish. All are bright and incredibly passionate about crosswords. It does take a lot of skill and a range of knowledge to complete the little suckers. Past champions talk about what it is like to win and what impact it has on their life now. No matter what, their love of puzzles shines through.
Along with Shortz the film looks at Merl Reagle, one of the regular puzzle creators for the Times (by the way, check out his wallpaper in the scene at his home). “Wordplay” also interviews famous fans of crossword puzzles. “The Daily Show” host, Jon Stewart, takes on the daily crossword with bravado and humor. The fan base of the daily New York Times crossword puzzle also includes pitcher Mike Mussina, the Indigo Girls, director Ken Burns, and even Bob Dole and Bill Clinton. We watch them solve one of the Reagle’s puzzles and it is amazing that the sequence ends up so fun.
You would think watching people fill out crosswords at a tournament to be the most deadliest of boring activities but the scenes are entertaining and sometimes hilarious. Director Patrick Creadon keeps things moving, using clever graphics to depict the workings of the crossword puzzles on the screen. Creadon finds himself lucky when the tournament ends up with quite a dramatic finish.
If you have never picked up a crossword puzzle you should still find the film entertaining enough, but be warned if you enjoy crosswords. You will be scouring through your house trying to find one to play. The addiction in the film spills over.