One of 2006’s big documentary hits was Wordplay, which looks at the culture of the crossword puzzle. The film is now on DVD, and if you’ve ever attempted a crossword in a newspaper, or picked up a puzzle book, or done one online, then it will be of considerable interest to you.
Director Patrick Creadon takes several approaches to his subject. For starters, he interviews the people who make the puzzles, most notably Will Shortz, editor of the famed New York Times crossword puzzle. We learn what it takes to construct a puzzle and how clues are written. It becomes clear that every puzzle is different. Some of the best writers often come up with “concepts” for each one they produce. As an example, ace writer Merl Reagle devises a special puzzle dedicated to the subject of this movie. For those not overly familiar with the Times puzzle, it may come as something of a surprise that the puzzles get harder with each passing day of the week. (Monday is the easiest; Sunday the hardest.)
Interspersed with the behind-the-clues scenes are interviews with famous puzzle solvers, including comedian Jon Stewart, Yankee star Mike Mussina, and former President Bill Clinton. Each testifies to the joy they get from correctly deciphering the clues. For them, the Times puzzle is a daily routine. They know what all puzzle solvers know: you get an extra feeling of being smart for successfully finishing one.
Finally, we get to know some of the nation’s top crossword solvers, who compete each year in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament (a Shortz creation). Among the contenders are Ellen Ripstein, whose timid affect masks a fierce intelligence for crosswords, and prodigy Tyler Hinman, who excels in competition despite being only college age. The final third of Wordplay focuses on the 28th annual tournament, showing us how the contestants prepare and, just as importantly, bond with one another over a shared passion. I have a long-standing theory about documentaries: every really good one contains at least one scene where the camera captures something dramatic and unexpected. Such a moment occurs during the tournament footage. I actually had to rewind and watch it a second time to fully absorb the impact.
You might think that a 90-minute documentary about crossword puzzles would run kind of thin, but that’s not the case. Wordplay gave me new respect for the intelligence of those who solve them well, and admiration for those who create them. Like anything else, what is essentially a leisure activity can become all-consuming for those who “get it” on some deeper level. It was fascinating to see some of the rituals people use to stay sharp. For instance, several of the movie’s participants time themselves to see how quickly they can solve a puzzle.
You also get the impression that there’s an invisible connection between the creators and the solvers. The creators delight in coming up with something witty and clever; the solvers, meanwhile, respond with great appreciation and enthusiasm. They fundamentally need each other. Sometimes the solvers get angry, though. Shortz hilariously recounts some of the hate mail he’s received over the years. Apparently, a bad clue is enough to send some people off the deep end.
Wordplay reminded me of another fairly recent film called Word Wars, which followed obsessive Scrabble players through the national tournament. That film was really in-depth when it came to exploring the personalities of its interview subjects. I wish Wordplay had a little more of that, but it’s a small quibble. All in all, this is a very well-made and fun-to-watch movie that takes us into a subculture that many of us may not have really known existed.
The special features are every bit as satisfying. There are plenty of deleted scenes and extended interview clips with famous puzzlers. A subset of features tracks Wordplay’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, complete with post-screening Q&A. Yet another section explains (in wonderful detail) the Five Greatest Puzzles Ever Made, each of which is a tiny masterpiece of construction. There’s also a photo gallery, a music video, a crossword-themed short film, and an audio commentary by Creadon, Shortz, and Reagle. The Wordplay DVD also comes with a booklet featuring those Five Greatest Puzzles. This is a particularly nice bonus, as you will absolutely want to do some puzzles after watching this informative and highly entertaining film.
( out of four)
Wordplay is rated PG some language and mild thematic elements. The running time is 1 hour and 34 minutes.
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