November 20, 2006
Starring: Will Shortz, Merl Reagle, Al Sanders, Trip Payne, Ellen Ripstein, Tyler Hinman, Jon Stewart, Ken Burns, Indigo Girls, Mike Mussina, Daniel Okrent, Bob Dole, Bill Clinton,
There’s an episode of MASH where Hawkeye and B.J. become obsessed with solving a New York Times crossword puzzle and go to outrageous lengths to finish it. This episode perfectly sums up the kind of dedication these puzzles inspire and require. Wordplay (2006) profiles Will Shortz, the crossword puzzle editor for The New York Times and explores a hobby that millions of people practice on buses and subways to and from work every day. What is the appeal of crossword puzzles? This entertaining and informative documentary answers this question.
Shortz started making puzzles at age eight and sold his first one at 14. They are clearly a lifelong passion for him and in 1993 he became the puzzle editor at the New York Times. Surprisingly, he says that his favourite part of the job is reading his fan mail and even reads some of the more choice letters in the documentary. We meet his famous admirers, like comedian Jon Stewart, politician Bob Dole and President Bill Clinton who speak entertainingly about their passion for crosswords. Clinton, in particular, finds the Times crosswords relaxing and has been doing them for years. He loves solving problems and speaks eloquently about his passion for them.
Another fascinating aspect of this documentary is that it sheds light on how crossword puzzles are created, assembled and finally edited. Fellow documentarian Ken Burns points out that the grid of a crossword mirrors the grid-like structure of a big city or living in an apartment building or traveling on the subway. Good crossword puzzles – and the ones in the Times are some of the best – test your knowledge of words and what they mean. Crossword puzzle constructor Merl Reagle shows us how one is created. It takes real intelligence and we see him thinking up a theme and then finding words and clues to go with it that apply while also fitting into the grid.
Wordplay also interviews and profiles the top puzzle solvers in the United States. We meet Al Sanders, Trip Payne, Ellen Ripstein, and Tyler Hinman and they talk about how and when they got into crosswords. All of them have competed and continue to compete in the Annual American Crossword Tournament that was started by Shortz. The documentary culminates with this contest and we get to see the best puzzlers we’ve met earlier on compete against each other. Time is of the essence but accuracy counts too. As the tournament progresses and we get down to the three finalists, there is genuine tension because we’ve become so familiar with each of them. The end result is a historic event – for the tournament that is.
This is a fun, engaging documentary that successfully conveys the passion people have for crosswords. All one needs is a puzzle and something to write with and there is something comforting about that kind of simplicity in this day and age where everyone seems to be plugged into an iPod or a Playstation.
There is an audio commentary by director Patrick Creadon, New York Times puzzle editor Will Shortz and crossword constructor Merl Reagle. Creadon and his wife were big fans of the New York Times crossword and thought that a documentary about Shortz would be interesting. Shortz comes across as a naturally funny guy who tells some amusing anecdotes. Creadon describes Jon Stewart as the most aggressive puzzle solver he came across and who made him laugh so much that at one point in the film he points out when the camera shakes a little because he was laughing so hard. Reagle talks about how he is always thinking up crosswords and has tons of ideas for ones that he has still yet to use. This is a very genial, engaging track that compliments the documentary quite well.
Also included are seven deleted scenes pertaining to Shortz. We see footage of him reading another fan letter, footage of him talking about the difficulty he had taking over at the New York Times and the negative mail he received about how much tougher the puzzles were when he took over.
There are six additional deleted scenes with the other puzzle solvers in the doc. Ellen Ripstein talks about the allure of puzzles for her while Al Sanders speaks about how he is at the perfect age for solving puzzles.
There are three deleted scenes from the Stamford Crossword Tournament including more interviews with other attendees.
The “Interview Gallery” features more footage of the celebrity puzzle solvers. Ken Burns talks about his love for crosswords while Jon Stewart talks about meeting Shortz in person for the first time.
“5 Unforgettable Puzzles from the Pages of the New York Times” features footage of five people who created some of the most memorable crosswords in the newspaper’s history. One lady designed a pictorial puzzle and another designs humourous puzzles with puns.
“Wordplay Goes to Sundance” shows the documentary’s reception at this famous film festival. Key crew members and interview subjects were there and are shown answering questions from the audience.
There is a music video for the song “Every Word” by Gary Louris.
Also included is the “Wordplay Photo Gallery,” a montage of pictures from the Sundance screenings.
“And the Winner is…” presents the finalists from this year’s Annual American Crossword Tournament.
Finally, there is “Waiting for the New York Times,” a short film by Patricia Erens.