"'Wordplay"', a new documentary about people who play crossword puzzles... If you have read this far, you will probably enjoy this film... is a lighthearted look at the people who solve puzzles, their lives and the annual tournament they compete in.
If you listen to NPR or look at the Arts section of the New York Times, you are probably familiar with Will Shortz. Shortz, the editor of the NY Times Crossword Puzzle, considered by many to be the best in the country, is a revered man in his community and he is at the center of "'Wordplay"'. But the film isn't only about him, telling vignettes of other people as well. In a lively manner, it depicts how the puzzles are created, shows people solving puzzles, depicts some of the participants in the annual Crossword Tournament, organized and hosted by Shortz, and attempts to provide a sketch of the people who are so interested in crossword puzzles.
A brief look at the evolution of the NY Times Puzzle leads into a short bio of Shortz himself. He attended a very liberal college in Illinois and was able to write his own curriculum leading to a degree in Enigmatology; basically, he was able to study the art of puzzles and to create puzzles. This eventually led to a job as the editor of the New York Times Crossword Puzzle, considered by many to be the best in the country, if not the world. He explains what his job entails; he receives puzzles, decides which day of the week it will run and rewrites some of the clues. Did you know certain days are easier than others? Monday and Tuesday are supposed to be easier. I didn't. In an amusing scene, Shortz reads some of the letters he receives, complaining about the puzzles. People apparently take these things very seriously.
As the film progresses, we meet some other people. One of whom is Will Reagle, a frequent contributor to the NY Times Crossword. He explains a little about the history of the puzzle's development, some of the rules established by the puzzle's former editor, and shows us how he creates a new puzzle. As he works, the film cuts to various celebrities solving the same puzzle; we see brief shots of Jon Stewart, Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, the Indigo Girls, Ken Burns and others as they work through the various clues. As we watch Will come up with the various ideas for the puzzle, the theme, and more, it is fun to watch the various celebrities working out the same clues, figuring out the theme. Shifting back and forth between the two sequences adds a lot of filmic quality to the project and makes it infinitely more interesting than watching some guy sit at a table filling in a grid.
Throughout the film, director Patrick Creadon uses other similar techniques to make the project move in a much more fast paced manner and also seem more accessible to people who aren't devoted to puzzles on a daily basis.
Soon, the action shifts to the annual Crossword Tournament, at the Stamford, Connecticut Radisson. Hosted by Shortz, the Tournament provides an opportunity for many returning players to catch up, socialize and meet new people also devoted to crossword puzzles. We meet many of the returning players, getting a little snapshot of their lives but the story concentrates on a handful of regulars; Tyler Hinman, a 20 year old wiz kid ready to take first place, Trip Payne, a former champion, receiving moral support from his boyfriend, Ellen Ripstein, another former champion, ready to take the trophy again, Patrick Jordan, the venerable also ran, having placed third repeatedly without ever winning, returns as well, ready for victory.
As the Tournament begins, brief explanation and easy to understand graphics explain the rules and help us understand how everything works. As the puzzles are introduced, we see the clues for various entries and have a few moments to figure them out as the contestants work through them. This is a great idea, because it makes the viewer feel as though they are part of the action, giving us a stake in the outcome.
"'Wordplay"' is a lot of fun, entertaining us as it provides a little education. What more could you expect from a documentary?