“Wordplay” is an eight-letter word for pure fun, a light, breezy documentary that introduces us to a genial gang of crossword puzzle fans whose passion for the pastime is gleefully infectious.
Partly focused on a national crossword competition, director Patrick Creadon’s film has all the thrill-of-victory moments of such recent documentary hits as “Spellbound,” “Murderball” and “Mad Hot Ballroom.”
“Wordplay” also offers a marvelous lineup of celebrity enthusiasts, including former President Clinton, “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart, filmmaker Ken Burns, New York Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina and the Indigo Girls (Emily Saliers and Amy Ray).
At the center of it all: Will Shortz, editor of The New York Times crossword puzzle and star of the puzzle-master segment that airs Sunday mornings on NPR.
The film tracks Shortz’s lifelong interest in puzzles and brain teasers, including his college years, when he designed his own curriculum at Indiana University and earned a degree in “enigmatology.”
Creadon and his wife, producer Christine O’Malley, smartly construct “Wordplay” with the celebrity power generally upfront and the drama of the crossword competition held in reserve for the end.
By the time you see Stewart yelling defiantly “Come on, Shortz! Bring it!” at his Times Sunday crossword early in the film, you’re hooked. The film then radiates outward for a warm, witty look at the rank-and-file of the world of crossword puzzles.
Shortz’s band of puzzle creators offer lively glimpses into how they go about crafting a crossword. Competitors at Shortz’s annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, Conn., reflect on how they became engrossed.
The contest itself is a nail-biter, with competitors plotting strategy and racing the clock to finish.
It may not sound like a great spectator sport, watching people tear through clues and scribble down answers. But “Wordplay” spotlights an agonizing turn in the championship round where defeat displaces certain victory for one player, the moment as painful as seeing your team’s star center bounce a three-point jump shot that would have won the game off the rim at the buzzer.
What’s most striking about the tournament players “Wordplay” features is their camaraderie. They’ve become friends as well as opponents, forming a community out of what most of us consider a solitary pastime.
Most of us also would consider crosswords a slight thing in our lives. Yet Clinton discusses how doing the Sunday Times crossword was a diversion that gave him a needed break from pressing matters in the White House.
If a crossword puzzle can help a president think more clearly in a crisis, maybe Shortz should get his own Cabinet post.