War of the words


Starring Bill Clinton, Ken Burns and Jon Stewart (as themselves). Directed by Patrick Creadon. Rated PG.
Rated 4.0

Even as someone who can reliably be found scrawling away idle time with the weekday New York Times crossword (well, Monday through Thursday … that Friday one is a total bitch), the concept of a documentary profiling Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz and his cult-like league of followers seemed the stuff of, well, seven letters, starts with B: Lacking interest. But as with generally any answer I pen in on the Friday version of the NYT crossword, I was wrong.

The primary focus of the documentary is the annual competition of crossword junkies at the Marriott in Stamford, Conn., and of the borderline obsessive folks who aspire to be the premier problem solver in the nation. These are some seriously messed-up people, competing to see who can finish a crossword the fastest, which to me is akin to a sex contest to see who can have the quickest quickie.

“Uh! I win!” Different strokes, I guess.

Along the way we meet such aficionados of the form as Bill Clinton, documentarian Ken Burns, Jon Stewart, the Indigo Girls and Bob Dole as they testify about their addiction and how they apply the logic of the crossword to their own day-to-day problem solving, and legendary crossword constructer Merl Reagle, who allows the crew backstage to see how the blocks are stacked and how the inherent rules of the game are applied, and makes construction seem more engaging than the pedestrian approach of solving them.

If the film loses steam for some viewers, it would be at the halfway mark, as the narrative settles down into focusing pretty much exclusively on the competition, with plenty of montage padding. Which is all well and fine, but back to the quickie contest—who really wants to watch someone else have all the fun?