In summing up the reason why over fifty million Americans do crossword puzzles every week, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns makes a fascinating guess by saying that in New York people live in a city of grids, in box-shaped apartments, riding the box-like subway to work, where they sit in boxy cubicles, therefore it’s no wonder why people love to fill in boxes for fun. No newspaper is as popular to avid puzzlers than The New York Times and in director Patrick Creadon’s wonderfully fresh documentary Wordplay, fans including not only the aforementioned Burns but former President Bill Clinton, Senator Bob Dole, comedian Jon Stewart, musicians The Indigo Girls, and Yankee pitcher Mike Mussina are interviewed along with non-celebrity enthusiasts who are so successful at unlocking the boxes that some are able to complete a single puzzle in under three minutes. We meet the genius behind-the-scenes, New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz who creates, edits and sifts through stacks of both puzzle submissions and regular reader feedback (ranging from irate to complimentary) on a weekly basis along with his second professional position as “Puzzle Master” on National Public Radio. In researching the evolving popularity of the puzzles, we learn from the film that Shortz, along with some dedicated and like-minded friends, created a national crossword contest held annually at the Marriott Hotel in Stamford Connecticut where each year hopefuls gather to test the limits of their brains in a marathon competition. Wordplay is a surprising crowd-pleaser and it’s illuminating to learn more about the statistics surrounding puzzles such as the rules involved in creating one, Shortz’s “laws” about what constitutes an easier Monday puzzle as opposed to the hair-pulling monster challenge of a Sunday, and I especially enjoyed trying to figure out just what made the successful puzzlers's minds tick as one interviewee informs us that the two most prolific occupations for puzzle champions are mathematicians and musicians. The film introduces us to not only new hopefuls including a whiz kid college student able to complete puzzles ridiculously fast on his computer, but also past champions and near-champions who aim for the top seat as the documentary progresses and we find ourselves at the nail-biting competition, rooting on the various participants that we feel we’ve come to know intimately as the filmmaker spends ample time interviewing the charismatic figures. The film is a real treat and one that had me reaching for a puzzle book once it was over!
Check out Shortz's Most Popular Puzzles from Alibris