Tuesday, April 10, 2012


Release Date: 2006
Distribution Company: IFC Films, The Weinstein Company
Director: Patrick Creadon
Run time: 94 minutes
Seen on: IFC Channel 164, previously shown on PBS' Independent Lens, Available on Netflix DVD
Recommended: Yes, interesting use of graphics kept me engaged.  I doubted it at first, but stick with it, and trust me on this.
Rotten Tomato Rating: 95%
Website: http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/wordplay/

I have had "Wordplay" on my DVR since February.  I put off watching it, because honestly, how interesting can a documentary about crossword puzzles actually be?  I was wrong.  I was drawn into the documentary during the title sequence after hearing Cake's "Shadow Stabbing."  The design of the documentary is very appealing.  It had excellent graphics and used overlays to show the clues as the answers filled in on a page.  This technique drew me into the documentary and allowed me to solve the puzzle along with the contestants.  I credit this interesting use of graphics that kept my attention throughout the film.

The first half of the doc introduces us to the big names in the crossword puzzle world: the editor, the creator, and the enthusiasts.  This doc features Will Shortz, Editor of the New York Times Crossword Puzzle.  He was so interested in puzzles that he created his own major at Indiana University, enigmatology.  He was willing to be poor in order to do puzzles.  Shortz reads some amusing hate mail in the doc, revealing the interest and passion of those who regularly do the NYT Crossword.  Shortz also founded the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in 2008.  We are also introduced to puzzle creator Merl Reagle and former Public Editor of the NYT Daniel Okrent.

While the first half of the documentary focuses on the creation of crossword puzzles, the second half focuses on the 2005 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.  We were introduced to five major competitors in the first half of the documentary and now have a more personal connection to these contestants.  The contestants include:
#333 Al Sanders from Fort Collins, CO
#321 Ellen Ripstein from New York, NY
#90 Jon Delfin from New York, NY
#162 Tyler Hinman from New York, NY
#292 Trip Payne from Fort Lauderdale, FL

Because we had been introduced to these contestants in the first half, we are now rooting for them to succeed in the competition.  There are numerous rounds in the competition.  You are competing against yourself as much as you are against the person next to you.  Your score is based on your time and your errors.  So the first one done may have the highest score.  The competition is based on seconds and accuracy.  You struggle with the contestants and groan when you know they have made an error.  Again, the graphics help you to work along with them and keep a running score of who is in first.  By the time you are in the final round with the final three, you are right there with them.  I won't ruin the ending for you, but I was yelling at the film by the ending.  I recommend this documentary.  I doubted it at first, but stick with it, and trust me on this.

Interspersed into the doc are interviews with fans of the NYT Crossword including: Jon Stewart, Ken Burns, Indigo Girls, Mike Mussina (New York Yankees Pitcher), Bob Dole, and Former President Bill Clinton.  The documentary filmmaker Ken Burns describes his interest in crossword puzzles: "Cities are where we leave the imprint of human interaction.  What the city offers, particularly this city, especially this city, is a sense of grids.  You know, it's all about boxes.  You live in a box, and you ride in a box to go to work in a box.  And we have the wonderful newspaper that boxy-shaped that has in it this page which is my favorite page in the whole newspaper and there are a set of boxes in which you kind of practice the wordplay of this particularly exquisite language."

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