- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 22, 2006

A casual solver’s relationship with the New York Times crossword puzzle can border on the obsessive. But devoted cruciverbalists — solvers who can polish off the difficult Saturday puzzle in a crisp 10 minutes — are a breed apart.

The winning new documentary “Wordplay,” directed, co-written and shot by Patrick Creadon, follows the fortunes of several top solvers as they prepare for the annual crossword championship in Stamford, Conn. There is Tyler Hinman, the hyperkinetic 20-year-old engineering student; Al Sanders, a middle-aged project manager from Colorado; Trip Payne, a professional puzzler and an intense, competitive solver who first won the competition at age 24; and two New Yorkers — goofy, fast-talking school teacher Ellen Ripstein and pianist Jon Delfin.

While the film might not do much to drum up interest in crosswords, daily solvers will enjoy the chance to get to know Will Shortz, the master of ceremonies of the competition and the New York Times crossword editor. Mr. Shortz founded the Stamford competition as a 25-year-old puzzle maker in 1978, and landed the New York Times job in 1993. Listeners of NPR’s Sunday morning news program know him as the engaging and genial puzzle master. He’s been making puzzles since he was in his teens and, as a student at Indiana University, he designed his own major in “engimatology.”

To reach a general audience, Mr. Creadon interviews celebrity solvers, including former President Bill Clinton, New York Yankee pitcher Mike Mussina, comedian Jon Stewart and folk singing duo the Indigo Girls (who report that being used as an answer in a Times puzzle was a career highlight). Mr. Stewart is funny and engaging, at one point reaching for a Sharpie to fill in an easy Monday puzzle, then rejecting it in favor of a giant glue stick.

It is especially interesting and, for a solver of moderate skills, reassuring to hear Mr. Clinton admit that he can look at half the clues on a Saturday puzzle before finding one he can answer. The only celebrity misstep is an unbelievably gassy, pretentious turn by documentarian Ken Burns, who does not miss an opportunity to transform his smallest observation about crossword solving to a broad and obtuse theory of knowledge.

The real action is at the tournament, which comprises the last act of the movie. The crossword enthusiasts at a recent screening murmured their approval when puzzles by notorious toughies David I. Kahn and Patrick Merrill were presented. I was disappointed to see the work of the soul-crushing Manny Nosowsky excluded, but this is a minor quibble.

Mr. Creadon cleverly allows viewers to follow along during the competition by putting clues up on a split screen as the solvers furiously scribble answers into the boxes. The three-way final round may not be enough to engage viewers without an interest in crosswords, but for anyone who routinely turns to the New York Times crossword puzzle with nary a glance at the front page, it is high drama.

***

TITLE: “Wordplay”

RATING: PG (mild epithets)

CREDITS: Written by Christine O’Malley and Patrick Creadon and directed by Mr. Creadon. Cinematography by Mr. Creadon.

RUNNING TIME: 94 minutes

WEB SITE: https://www.wordplaymovie.com/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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