In the best scene in Wordplay, crossword-puzzle constructor Merl Reagle sits alone at his dining-room table with a pencil and a piece of graph paper. Many of us try to solve crossword puzzles, those enticing but frustrating blocks of blackened squares and open spaces yearning to be filled. But most of us have probably never thought much about how they're created. So Reagle, a regular contributor to The New York Times crossword, gives us a lesson.
First he shades in a few boxes, giving his puzzle some shape and symmetry. Then he writes in a few key words he wants to build the puzzle around. Then he goes about filling in the rest, negotiating tricky letter combinations, trying not to work himself into an irresolvable corner, coming up with combinations of letters that he thinks are words but needs to consult a dictionary to be sure about. As much fun as trying to solve a puzzle may be, Reagle makes us want to try to make one. Especially when we later see the delight of celebrity crossword addicts like Daily Show host Jon Stewart and former President Bill Clinton when they try to solve Reagle's puzzle.
And that's one of the great things about Wordplay, a charming, modest documentary about people who make crossword puzzles and the "solvers" who are their audience: It makes thinking itself fun, exciting, and suspenseful.
Wordplay, confidently and affectionately directed by first-timer Patrick Creadon, begins as a bio-doc of New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz, who took over editing duties in 1993, adding pop-culture answers and a looser framework to the venerable puzzle. But before he was at the paper of record, Shortz founded the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, which is held every year in Stamford, Connecticut.
Wordplay's real subject, it turns out, is the 2005 tournament (the 28th) and some of its key competitors. Despite the presence so many celebrity puzzle fans (Clinton compares solving a crossword to grappling with global problems as president -- you start with what you know and use that to figure out the rest), none of these notables is quite as interesting as the ordinary citizens who compete in Shortz' tournament.
Wordplay's format is similar to the recent spelling-bee documentary Spellbound. We meet a few contestants in their home environments and learn about them, then follow as they all come together at the competition.
In this case, memorable competitors include Ellen Ripstein, a self-described "little nerd girl" who won the tournament in 2001 after many near misses. (Creadon includes archival footage of Ellen's win, her frowning at the judges -- "Are you sure? Are you sure?" -- as applause erupts around her.) Ellen's a mousy, nervous thing who likes to go baton twirling in the park and who remembers fighting back against an unkind ex-boyfriend who mocked her crossword obsession by asking, "What are you the best in the world at?" And then there's Tyler Hinman, an astoundingly normal 20-year-old college student who constructs puzzles at his fraternity house and is trying to become the youngest winner ever.
Wordplay isn't as emotionally engrossing as Spellbound. You don't worry over these adults the way you do the kids. But it's more inspiring. The tension and competition in Spellbound could be a little uncomfortable, and that movie never made you want to spell. In Wordplay, the solvers want to win, but the journey of solving the puzzle is more important. As is the fellowship with their crossword-addicted friends.
There's something almost utopian about Wordplay's climactic gathering: In an increasingly dumbed-down and coarsened culture, here are dozens of smart, kind people enjoying each other and the literate, engaging puzzles they solve. Who knew nerd paradise was a hotel conference room in Connecticut?