I’m relieved by the existence of the film “Wordplay,” because it assures me that I am not alone. There are other people just like me, who also know the difference between a New York Times crossword puzzle and an inferior one, who understand the lingo used in the clues, and who — heaven help us — actually recognize the names of some of our favorite puzzle constructors.
It’s growing safer and safer to be a nerd in our society, and “Wordplay” is the latest clarion call, a delightfully unimportant and entertaining documentary about the New York Times crossword puzzle and its editor, Will Shortz.
Crossword aficionados know what a difference Shortz has made since becoming editor of the daily puzzles in 1993. His predecessors eschewed puzzles with slang or of-the-moment pop-cultural phrases; Shortz, recognizing the Times’ need to cover the modern world in all its facets, embraces them. Both clues and answers have become more playful and imaginative under Shortz’s watch.
This film, directed by Patrick Creadon, gives some background on Shortz, follows beloved puzzle constructor Merl Reagle as he creates a puzzle from start to finish, interviews notable personalities who are avid Times puzzle fans (including Jon Stewart and Bill Clinton), and has its finale at the 28th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Conn.
In some ways, “Wordplay” follows in the footsteps of docs like “Spellbound” and “Word Wars,” which focused on spelling bees and Scrabble tournaments, respectively. But while “Wordplay” does end with a contest whose outcome is far from predictable, its primary subject is the New York Times crossword puzzle in its daily format, accessible to everyone, beloved by thousands.
Creadon’s access to famous people who love the Times crossword is impressive. Here’s documentarian Ken Burns talking about Manhattan as a city of grids and boxes, and the crossword being a manifestation of that. Here’s Bill Clinton very eloquently explaining how working a crossword is the same as solving a complicated political problem: “You start with what you know the answer to and then you build on it.” The Indigo Girls are here. So is Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina. And of course Jon Stewart, cracking wise about his devotion to the Times crossword. (“Sometimes I will do, in a hotel room, a USA Today. But I don’t feel good about myself.”)
Champion puzzle-solvers are the sort of lovable geeks and non-photogenic types you’d expect, happy with who they are and cheerful about the annual competitions, which are a cross between summer camp (with friends you only see once a year) and fierce intellectual combat.
The film should appeal to anyone with a love of crosswords, or even just a love of the English language. The people interviewed are lively and funny, and Creadon maintains a buoyant pace as he takes us through the black-and-white world of the crossword puzzle.
B+ (1 hr., 30 min.; )