Before I launch into Foxcatcher, which I finally got around to watching, I should note that dramatic films based on real personalities are rarely true accounts of an individual’s life. At best one hopes that they are at least close approximations. Filmmakers must deal with the constraints of compressing events into a two-hour timeframe so their film is more marketable upon release. As a result, in the making, important factual information is often left in the editing bay. Of course, other filmmakers make conscious decisions to omit key information about their subject in order to enhance or sully the reputation of the personality being portrayed or to make other ideologically slanted statements. Thus approaching any film based on real personalities or real historical events should always be met with a degree of skepticism.
Foxcatcher is a well produced and well acted, though plodding and lumbering, film. It has an air of authenticity and is set for the most part on a sprawling estate standing in for the former du Pont estate near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania which, since the murder of Olympic gold medalist wrestler Dave Schultz by John du Pont, has been parceled out for a school and housing tracts.
Foxcatcher producer and director Bennett Miller (Moneyball – 2011 and Capote – 2005) gives us a John du Pont (played very seriously and adeptly, by Steve Carell) who bears some physical resemblance to the real John du Pont with the help of some prosthetic makeup on his proboscis. But at its heart Foxcatcher is an incomplete portrait and ultimately a dishonest portrayal of du Pont and the events that took place.
Taken at face value, Foxcatcher’s du Pont could easily be described as simply an unloved, eccentric and egocentric rich man/child longing for the approval of an aloof mother preoccupied with her line of pampered purebred horses. Foxcatcher’s John du Pont character (or caricature) displays moments of eccentricity tinged with an ominous undercurrent of potential rage. However, the glaring omission that Miller makes about du Pont, especially during the time that the heir to the du Pont fortune hosted and dubiously trained the USA wrestling team on the family estate, is that the man was suffering what was diagnosed at trial as paranoid schizophrenia that exhibited itself often in delusional tirades about people, including wrestler Dave Schultz, who du Pont believed was part of an international conspiracy to kill him. There is no mention of this in the film. In fact, there is no mention at all of du Pont’s psychosis.
There are actually two recent films about the events that took place on the du Pont estate near Valley Forge, Pennsylvania – Foxcatcher which was released in 2014 and a subsequent documentary The Prince of Pennsylvania released in 2015 by ESPN’s 30 for 30 film group. Had the ESPN documentary, which describes Du Pont’s psychosis in more detail, been released and viewed on television prior to Foxcatcher, it would have been easier to detect how Bennett Miller made a conscious decision to dismiss the disturbing aspects of du Pont’s mental state, which any reasonable person would conclude was the overriding factor in the murder Dave Schultz – not an inferred jealousy for Dave Schultz’s brother, star athlete, Olympic wrestler, Mark.
Mark Schultz, in an interview about the ESPN documentary was asked about the difference between Foxcatcher and the 30 for 30 film:
How was your experience of taking part in this documentary different to being involved with the movie “Foxcatcher”?
The documentary was factual and I had much more input. I had almost no input in the Hollywood version. I never understood why the director changed my story so dramatically.
As one reviewer, Ben Coo, wrote of the ESPN documentary on the site AwfulAnnouncing.com (emphasis mine):
If you liked Foxcatcher, The Prince Of Pennsylvania isn’t just a nice companion piece but it’s rather the authoritative retelling of what exactly happened. Despite being a 50 minute film, the 30 for 30 version goes much deeper in documenting things like du Pont’s growing paranoia, the shift of the training compound and grounds from a serene place to a “militarized zone” where guns and gunshots became an accepted norm, as well as du Pont’s struggles with addiction and mental health.
Was Bennett Miller, under time constraints and unable to depict du Pont’s disintegrating mental state and more extreme behavior? In the space of fifty minutes the ESPN film cites numerous examples of du Pont’s paranoia and disturbing mental state. Or was it Miller’s intent to use the sad story of the Schultz murder for different, more politically-loaded reasons, like the deliberate demonization of a prominent and eminently wealthy, and it should be said conservative and patriotic family?
In the aftermath of the Occupy Wall Street movement, we should have expected that some filmmakers would have played to the fashionable Leftist sentiment of bashing 1% — you know, those evil rich for all they presumably do to abuse the other 99%. Christopher Nolan, in the final chapter of his Dark Knight (Batman) trilogy happily showed just how vile an anarchist movement like the OWS could be by showing a character (Selina – played by Anne Hathaway) earlier in The Dark Knight Rises stealing from the rich who later becomes shocked and disturbed by the indiscriminate looting of Gotham’s more affluent later in the film.
Miller, on the other hand, seems to have used the twisted and sad story of the Schultz killing to push a narrative that decent, less affluent Americans are easy prey to be mowed down by the eccentric super rich simply out of jealousy and petulance and not because, in the case of the unhinged, John du Pont, they are suffering from a mental disorder. The real story, as presented in ESPN’s The Prince of Pennsylvania, is much more interesting, fascinating and disturbing and worthy of examination. Foxcatcher is worth looking at even if it is a less than honest account by a director who may have had a political agenda and felt that facts of the case were a nuisance or undermined his message.
[Originally posted behind the Ricochet.com paywall. Reposted here by permission of author. Brian Watt is a single dad living in Southern California with his special needs son. For over 30 years he has carved out a career in marketing as a writer, designer and creative director, as well as leading product teams to develop and release hundreds of consumer electronic products. He is currently President of Launch Directors, LLC, a marketing consultancy (www.launchdirectors.com). Brian is also completing his first novel, The Curious Globe of Cornelius Crain and editing a collection of his sometimes humorous political commentary and fiction, The Man In Lafayette Park.]