Wordplay

 
Directed by: Patrick Creadon
Released: October 26, 2006
Grade: A-

I love trivia and puzzles but for some strange reason, I’ve never been into crosswords.  Every time I try one, I find myself unable to answer a single clue.  How is it that people can complete them?  The answers can be found in the great new documentary, Wordplay.

According to the many people interviewed in the film, the crossword puzzle in the New York Times is regarded as the best in the world.  The easiest crossword appears in Monday’s paper and they become progressively more difficult in the lead up to Sunday’s challenger.  Will Shortz has been the editor of the Times crossword since 1993.  Rather than write every puzzle himself (which would be impossible creatively), Shortz gets help from an army of crossword creators who regularly submit their own.

The film begins with some background information on Shortz and his work at the New York Times.  We hear interviews from celebrities such as Bill Clinton and Jon Stewart as they express their fondness for the Times crossword and the frustration it causes them.  Stewart says it best with his comment that when he completes the puzzle in the USA Today, it just doesn’t make him feel good about himself.

The real focus of the movie though is on the 2005 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.  Started by Shortz in 1978, competitors flock from across the country and battle for the title of America’s best.  To determine who deserves the prestigious honour, every contestant completes 7 crosswords which points awarded for speed and deducted for errors.  The top 3 scorers go head-to-head in a single crossword final.

The 2005 tournament includes several former champions, those who have gone close but are yet to break through, and a few newcomers.  455 contestants started out on Saturday morning but by Sunday evening, only one will be the winner.  Place your bets.

Wordplay is very similar in both its style and content to the incredible documentary Spellbound, which looked at the lives of 8 children and their quest to become the National Spelling Bee champion.  Whilst Wordplay isn’t as engrossing and suspenseful as Spellbound (which I regard as the best documentary ever made), it still has a lot to offer.

As the competitors complete their crosswords, we get the chance to play along.  Thanks to some cool special effects, we see the clues appear on screen before they are answered.  It gave me great respect for these puzzle solvers who can amazingly finish them in less than 3 minutes.

The film also offers an interesting insight into what types of people are best at crosswords and how their continual analysis of words impacts on their daily lives.  Did you know for example that if you move the “d” at the start of D’unkin Donuts, you come up with Unkind Donuts?  Most of us would never give it a thought but for a select group, the anagram would pop into their head instantly.

If you’re ever looking for an 8-letter word for a terrific movie about solving crossword puzzles, then that’s one clue I can help with.  Try Wordplay.

  

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