I have to admit that I’m not a fan of crossword puzzles, which probably makes me less than an ideal audience member for Wordplay (IMDB), the new documentary about Will Shortz, editor of The New York Times crossword, and the crossword enthusiasts who tackle the puzzle on a daily basis. I’m not patient enough to learn the lingo of crossword clues, and while at least one crossword enthusiast makes reference to an innate human need to solve problems, to “fill in all the empty boxes,” I can rarely remain interested long enough to solve a puzzle, even on a Monday when they’re supposed to be easier. But Wordplay manages to convey to some extent why so many people are addicted to the Times crossword and regard puzzle editor Will Shortz as a mini-celebrity, as well as the sense of community that has developed among puzzle enthusiasts. In fact, the larger community of crossword fans appealed to such an extent that I found myself wishing that I could become interested in crossword puzzles.

No doubt, much of the appeal comes from the charming folks who talk about doing and making crossword puzzles. Celebrities such as Jon Stewart and the Indigo Girls illustrate how engaging with a crossword puzzle can spark the creative process, with Emily Saliers in partciular noting how a crossword puzzle can even help her to overcome writer’s block. Daniel Okrent, the former NYT public editor, admits that he has kept track of how quickly he solves the Times puzzle for years, competing against himself and in many ways, against time itself. Other celebrities, such as New York Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina and documentary filmmaker Ken Burns also offer intriguing explanations for their crossword addictions. Meanwhile Bill Clinton and Bob Dole recall a particulalry noteworthy Times puzzle that punned on both candidates’ names during the 1996 election (Clinton, in particular attests to the therapeutic aspects of a good crossword).

Clinton and Dole’s discussion of this puzzle sets up a compelling discussion of how crossword puzzles are produced, with Merl Reagle letting us in on his creative process for a puzzle based on the film’s title. Watching Reagle shape the puzzle gave some insight into the appeal of crosswords and the fact that crossword puzzles are, in fact, authored (something I didn’t really think about as an outsider). But I was somewhat surprised to learn that in most cases the letters are arranged first and the clues are often written afterwards (Reagle even looks in the dictionary to ensure that “redtop” is a word and to come up with the clue for that word).

Along with this narrative, Wordplay builds towards the national crossword championships, held annually in the same Marriott hotel in Stamford, Connecticut. We are introduced to the major contestants, Al Sanders, who manages to finish third every year, Trip Payne, who is the younget past champion (at age 24), and Tyler Hinman, a 20-year old college student. Unlike most competitive documentaries, Wordplay depicts all of the finalists generously, and while the film managed to keep the viewer in suspense about who would win, it does so without creating villains. Instead, the crossword players seem to have a genuine sense of community, as many of the players have returned annually since the tournament began in the 1970s. I’m still not likely to pick up the Times crossword anytime soon, but the subjects of Wordplay consistently charm and entertain, and based on the reactions of the DC audience, I’m guessing that crossword fans will likely enjoy this film.

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