I don’t do crossword puzzles, and I’ve felt ashamed about that for years. As a word nerd with obsessive-compulsive tendencies and a brain full of trivia, I might have the personality for it, but crossword puzzles were always my mother’s domain. A crossword puzzle fiend, the acknowledged master of all word games in my extended family, she was simply too intimidating an act to follow.
The documentary Wordplay, however, is so infectiously enthusiastic about crossword puzzles, its subject, that it made me want to get over my filial angst, pick up a pen and start filling in boxes. After all, I did beat Mom once in Scrabble — what a glorious day that was! — and as I haven’t lived with my parents for years, I wouldn’t have to fight her for the daily newspaper.
Wordplay is divided neatly into two parts. The first half takes a tantalizingly brief look at the history of the New York Times crossword puzzle, the mechanics of crossword construction, and thoughts on why people love the damn things so much. The second half takes us to the 28th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, held last year in Stamford, Connecticut. The constant throughout the film is Times puzzle editor Will Shortz, who began organizing the tournament in his 20s.
The people featured in the documentary — not only Shortz but also crossword aficionados such as Bill Clinton, Jon Stewart, and a host of other people, both famous and not — truly love crosswords. You can hear the fervor in their voices, and that kind of passion can make virtually any subject interesting.
Besides, these are smart, articulate people. Clinton movingly describes how the technique of working a crossword — starting with what you know and building from there — can be applied to virtually any problem in life. Former Times public editor Daniel Okrent intriguingly suggests that the best crossword solvers are mathematicians and musicians because their livelihoods depend on being able to process coded information rapidly. Puzzle constructor Merl Reagle walks us through the early stages of building a crossword, starting with blank squares, filling in theme-related answers, and looking for problem intersections. It’s fascinating stuff, and documentarian Patrick Creadon keeps us engaged with the puzzles on screen by highlighting individual clues and giving us a change to come up with the answers before filling in the boxes.
In fact, I was enjoying the discussion of crosswords so much that I initially felt disappointed when the film shifted gears and moved to the tournament. To my delight, however, the competition is surprisingly suspenseful. The three finalists must solve the same puzzle simultaneously on large whiteboards while wearing headphones to drown out any suggestions from the hundreds of spectators. By that point in the movie, we’ve met each of the three competitors, and it’s exciting to see who wins.
With the exception of a few particularly perceptive moments, Wordplay doesn’t have the depth of insight or the social commentary of its language-loving cousin Spellbound, but it does share the spelling bee documentary’s charming respect for geekiness. Ultimately, Wordplay is about people who share an obsession that many others would consider rather pointless. Yet the film presents that obsession with such wit and intelligence and verve that it becomes deeply appealing. Is it any wonder that I’m itching to get my hands on a crossword puzzle?