Will Shortz
Will Shortz, editor of the New York Times crossword puzzles. Photo courtesy of

Playing with words makes a good film

By Julian Wise - January 4, 2007

When Cronig's Market shut its doors on Sundays for the winter, hordes of Sunday New York Times readers began descending on nearby pharmacies, general stores, and cafes to find the paper. By noon most of the copies had been picked clean. Locals have adapted their weekend routines to include early morning forages for the newspaper. This determination has nothing to do with reading about the latest gyration in the nation's Iraq policy or David Brooks's sober op-eds. It's all about the puzzle.

If you're one of those people who savors a quiet Sunday morning with a strong cup of coffee and the Sunday New York Times Crossword Puzzle, you're not alone. You're part of a tribe that's millions strong, and if you need validation of your status, look no further than "Wordplay," director Patrick Creadon's documentary on the subculture of crossword fanatics. By blending profiles of competition-level crossword aficionados with familiar celebrities, Creadon crafts a whimsical portrait of the Cult of the Puzzle.

The center of the puzzle universe is Will Shortz, editor of the New York Times crossword puzzles. Shortz created a major in enigmatology while studying at Indiana University and has gone on to become the gatekeeper of puzzledom. At the heart of the film is the 28th annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, presided over by Shortz. Hundreds of competitive puzzlers descend on Stamford, Connecticut to compete for the top slot. We meet people from all backgrounds and occupations, united by their love of the puzzle. Watching them cruise through the cryptic squares with savant-like speed is a humbling experience, akin to witnessing a four-minute mile or virtuoso violin performance. The film shows them as offbeat souls, though compared to the oddball scrabble players in the documentary "Scrabylon," they're as straight as the couple in the "American Gothic" painting.

"Wordplay" includes interviews with Bill Clinton, Bob Dole, Jon Stewart, The Indigo Girls, and other familiar faces. While the celebrities are amusing, the core of the documentary is how ordinary Americans receive intellectual stimulation from their daily communion with the puzzle. At the film's conclusion, three finalists compete for the tournament's top slot, all trying to solve the same puzzle simultaneously. The result is surprisingly riveting, a testament to Creadon's ability to bring us inside this subculture.

"Wordplay" is a quick, amusing tour of the crossword landscape, sure to whet one's appetite for sitting down with a sharp pencil and a fresh puzzle. While most of us will never ascend to the elite tournament level, we can all experience the satisfying flash of insight that comes from solving a cryptic clue.

"Wordplay" is available on DVD.