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Crossword devotees shine in documentary

Observer Scene | Monday, September 18, 2006

At once engrossing and informative, Patrick Creadon’s “Wordplay” is a taut and fast-paced documentary about Will Shortz, the crossword puzzle editor for The New York Times.

The film opens with a brief history of the crossword puzzle before concentrating on Shortz, who holds a degree in Enigmatology (puzzle-solving, the only degree of its kind) from the University of Indiana. He has been crossword editor of The Times since 1993. Shortz is charismatic, intelligent and well-spoken, and his understanding of puzzles is nearly unparalleled. Were the documentary solely focused on him, it would still be entertaining in its own right, but “Wordplay” has much more on its mind.

Celebrities abound throughout the picture, including Ken Burns, Jon Stewart, Mike Mussina and Bill Clinton. All of these men have a great appreciation for Shortz and the New York Times crossword, especially Stewart, whose segments are hilarious. Calling himself a “Times puzzle man,” he remarks that he’ll do the USA Today puzzle if he’s in a hotel, but adds that “I won’t feel good about myself.”

“Wordplay” is about more than Shortz, however, as it also focuses on competitors in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament. Four competitors in particular – Tyler Hinman, Ellen Ripstein, Norman “Trip” Payne and Al Sanders – become the focus of the film. These people are interesting and quirky (as anyone who enters the ACPT would likely have to be), but share a love for puzzles and an ultra-competitive mentality.

Ripstein is a nerdy baton-twirler with radiant confidence. She remarks that a boyfriend made fun of her passion, to which she replies, “What are you the best in the world at?”

Payne is a three-time ACPT winner, who at 24 was the youngest champion ever. Sanders is a father and businessman who does the New York Times crossword every night (usually in under three minutes). Hinman is a 20-year-old Rutgers student who is striving to replace Payne as the youngest ACPT champion.

Once the film shifts into the crossword competition, the film takes on a whole different kind of life – the final crossword competition is surprisingly tense thanks to Creadon’s approach, which emphasizes character.

The audience by this time has gotten to know each of the three competitors, all of whom have the drive and ambition. Viewers at once want everyone to win and don’t want any to lose, a testament to Creadon’s sense of character.

The most fascinating aspect of the film is the relationship between building the puzzles and solving the puzzles. Merl Reagle, a brilliant puzzle constructor, demonstrates the intricacies that go into the making of a crossword puzzle. His skill and intelligence is obvious, though he clearly loves what he does and is very good at it. At one point while driving, he casually remarks that moving the “D” of Dunkin Donuts to the end of the word makes it spell Unkind Donuts.

The scenes that show puzzles being solved are adroitly handled. Audiences see a graphic of a puzzle being solved, which allows them to follow along – rather than be vertiginous and confusing (as it easily could have been), these scenes are direct and easy to follow.

“Wordplay” was an official selection at the Sundance Film Festival and is a likely candidate for a Best Documentary Academy Award nomination. Creadon has proven himself to be quite a good filmmaker, and unlike Morgan Spurlock and Michael Moore, he does not feel the need to make himself the focus of his own movie. After all, he knows he has a unique subject and approaches it with vigor and zeal.

“Wordplay” is an excellent film, not just for people who care about puzzles, but for people who care about movies and, perhaps most importantly, for people who care about people.