John du Pont (left) and Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz at the Foxcatcher National Training Center in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania
John du Pont is taken from a van on his way to the Newtown Square, Pennsylvania police station after his arrest in 1996
Wrestlers Dave Schultz (left) and his brother Mark compare Olympic Gold medals won at the 1984 Olympics
USA (134 mi) 2014 d: Bennett Miller Official Facebook
USA (134 mi) 2014 d: Bennett Miller Official Facebook
This is a very downbeat and dreary film that seems to be as much about depression as anything else, but also a sense of disillusionment in the American Dream, where there’s something inherently wrong with the core values, reflected after the euphoria of America’s dominance of the Olympic Games in Los Angeles in 1984, a jingoistic television bonanza, by the way, for an event that was boycotted by the Russians (1984 Summer Olympics boycott) along with 14 other Eastern Bloc nations, significantly lessening the quality of the competition. The 80’s was also an era of massive steel plant shutdowns, shifting their operations overseas, leaving a devastating hole for American workers to overcome, and Reaganomics, implementing a laissez-faire free market “trickle down” system that eliminated corporate regulations for the wealthy, where the rich got richer and the poor got significantly poorer, as the President froze minimum wage rates, slashed federal assistance to local governments by 60%, eliminating antipoverty Block Grant programs, while cutting the budgets for public housing in half, creating a surge of homelessness that continues to this day. While it was an era of supposed economic optimism where millionaires received special tax breaks, it was largely a hoax, not the economic miracle advertised, as it was paid for by mounting credit, where the national debt rose from $900 billion to $2.8 trillion during Reagan’s tenure. This created the perception of a divided nation, the wealthy, an upper middle class, and everybody else, where poor and minority citizens viewed Reagan as indifferent to their daily struggles. This movie does accurately reflect not only an economic divide, but also the last vestiges of the Cold War mentality, filled with the notion that American know-how and wealthy entrepreneurs were somehow responsible for reviving the sagging American spirit and bringing the nation back to its “rightful” position of international prominence. Much like the Eastern European nations had full government support backing their athletes, America needed similar avenues of financial support for those non-professional athletes that dedicated their lives to training for Olympic competition. Filling the void was corporate America, who offered their sponsorship, providing uniforms, equipment, live-in training facilities, and various services and products that account for 40% of Olympic revenues. Even today, when corporate sponsorship falls through, many U.S. Olympic athletes are left with only one back-up plan—joining the Army.
While this film makes the claim that it is based on a true story, this is only partially true, as the way the story is told is completely misleading, only raising more questions, as one of the final sequences condenses 7-years of time in a single shot, giving the audience the impression one event led to another, never providing the context for the missing years. So this is a fictionalized retelling of a true story, written by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, given the Hollywood treatment of creative license. Frye, by the way, wrote the brilliantly inventive SOMETHING WILD (1986) by Jonathan Demme, while Futterman wrote the screenplay for Bennett’s earlier film CAPOTE (2005). What’s special about the film is not the direction, though it was awarded Best Director at Cannes, but the performances, where two of the three main characters are barely recognizable to the public, Steve Carell with a prosthetic nose as eccentric multi-millionaire John du Pont, heir to the chemical company fortune, and Mark Ruffalo with a beard and receding hairline as Olympic gold medalist wrestler Dave Schultz, older brother to Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), both winning gold medals in wrestling at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. The story is seen through the eyes of Mark Schultz, both brothers losing their parents at an early age, moving continuously to various family members, leading hard scrabble, blue collar lives where Dave largely looked after his little brother for the duration of his life. In an early morning wrestling practice between the two brothers taking place in a dark and dingy gym, the bulked up physique of Mark is familiar, but Ruffalo completely loses himself in this character, where the two barely speak to one another, but violently throw each other around the mat, expressing the sheer brutality of the sport. While Dave is pursued by corporate sponsors, out of the blue Mark receives a call from John du Pont, who has built a state-of-the-art, world class wrestling facility on the 800-acre grounds of the du Pont family estate overlooking Valley Forge, where the logo is Foxcatcher. Du Pont’s wealth is everpresent, but he’s interested in sponsoring a team of wrestlers for the upcoming World Championships and the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea. While calling himself a patriot inspired to rebuild America’s image around the world, the personal interest expressed in Mark takes on that of a paternal relationship, where du Pont revels in being the father figure to such an esteemed athlete, an interest paralleled with that of his distant mother (Vanessa Redgrave) who raises world class horses.
Despite moving away from his brother to live on the grounds, Mark succeeds brilliantly, going on to win the World Championships in 1985, as his brother had done earlier in 1983, the only brother pair to ever achieve such exalted success in the sport. Both had brilliant collegiate careers as well that the film ignores, dealing instead with du Pont’s interest in one of the Schultz brothers. After the victory, du Pont introduces Mark to several bad habits, namely alcohol and cocaine, while showcasing him to his peers, often at events honoring John du Pont, where Mark offers additional complimentary praise on his behalf. As the two spend so much time together, they actually become friends, something neither one of them had as kids, both defined by loneliness, feeling unloved, dwarfed by the more powerful influence of their families, where du Pont apparently could never please his mother, where the only friend he had in childhood was paid to be his friend by his mother, while Mark was always under the influence of his older brother. Dave is happily married with kids, so did not feel comfortable uprooting his family, especially after the instability of his own childhood. But without Dave’s influence, Mark goes off his training regimen, becomes psychologically unhinged, forgetting about his passion for the sport, where du Pont quickly turns on him, becoming abusive, contemptuously treating him like an ungrateful child, losing his favored status. In an unorthodox move, du Pont hires his older brother Dave to come to the camp along with his family and train the Foxcatcher team for the 1988 Olympics. Mark loses his confidence, initially hiding his bad habits from his brother, and goes into a psychological tailspin so severe that even his brother can’t turn it around, where du Pont’s overcontrolling influence has poisoned the waters. After a disastrous Olympic performance, Mark leaves the compound to get away from du Pont, leaving Dave behind to continue coaching the team, as once more, Dave was not interested in moving his family. Du Pont, on the other hand, traded in one Schultz brother for the other. Nonetheless, in marked contrast with the stability of his brother Dave, who’s a brilliant coach with a loving family, the film spends so much time exploring the instability of Mark’s character that du Pont’s mental meltdown all but blindsides the audience. While more than 7 years pass after Mark leaves the compound, with Dave still coaching at Foxcatcher throughout, the film makes it seem like the very next moment when du Pont goes after Dave, seemingly unable to break his will as he had his younger brother, shooting him senselessly in front of his family, leaving 20 former Foxcatcher athletes without training or coaching resources six months before the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. The event arrives with a thud, as the focus of the film showcases Mark’s fragile state of mind throughout, becoming Tatum’s most complex character to date, so the shift away from him is simply odd. Despite Carell’s grotesque, emotionally peculiar performance as du Pont, a man who knows little about the sport of wrestling, no inner pathology for du Pont is ever developed, instead remaining isolated and emotionally erratic throughout, continually overshadowed by the actual talent and accomplishments of the Schultz brothers.
In an odd twist of events, du Pont’s will stipulated that 80% of his assets outside the family trust would go to Bulgarian wrestler Valentin Jordanov Dimitrov and his family, who lived at the Foxcatcher compound at the time of the murder and went on to win a gold medal at the 1996 Olympic Games. Dimitrov was also the executor of the will. Along with a bronze medal at the 1992 Olympics, Dimitrov was a seven-time world champion, seven-time European champion, and the only wrestler to hold 10 medals (7 gold, 2 silver and 1 bronze) from the World Championships. When the International Olympic Committee eliminated wrestling as an Olympic event in 2013, one of only two Olympic sports, along with boxing, that still require participants to have amateur status to participate, Dimitrov returned his 1996 Olympic gold medal in protest. After a public outcry, seven months later wrestling was reinstated back into the Olympics, while baseball/softball and squash were dropped instead.