Team Foxcatcher Faces The Prince Of Pennsylvania In The Battle Of The Du Pont/Schultz Documentaries
Which wrestling/true crime TV doc is more worth your time? Chris Huff breaks them down!
Soon after I started studying history as a potential career, a professor turned me on to Akira Kurosawa's classic film Rashomon. In the movie, several witnesses tell different, often contradictory, stories about the same event. The point was pretty obvious: there is no one definitive version of history. What we think happened is often largely dependent on the person doing the telling. Somethings get emphasized, others get left out; it's a more subjective process than most people think.
The new Netflix documentary Team Foxcatcher is the third film in as many years to explore the bizarre and heartbreaking story of how John Du Pont, a member of one of the nation's oldest and wealthiest families, murdered wrestler Dave Schultz. The first, a scripted 2014 feature film starring Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, and Mark Ruffalo, fully explored Du Pont's eccentricity and descent into madness, but placed the close relationship between brothers Mark and Dave Schultz -- both winners of Olympic gold medals and Team Foxcatcher wrestlers -- at the center of the movie. ESPN followed up the next year with its own telling of the murder as part of its excellent 30 For 30 series of sports documentaries, entitled The Prince Of Pennsylvania.
Now we get this third version of events: Team Foxcatcher, a feature-length documentary from director Jon Greenhalgh that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this month. There are certainly similarities between this film and The Prince Of Pennsylvania. Both focus on the relationship between Dave Schultz and Du Pont -- emphasizing the wrestler's attempts to befriend the multi-millionaire and how these efforts backfired. Both films rely on much of the same home movie footage and archival news reports. The biggest difference, interestingly, is that Dave's brother Mark, who wrestled for Team Foxcatcher for years before Dave arrived and was the first target for Du Pont's obsessive behavior, plays a smaller and smaller role with each new telling of the story. A main player in the feature film and an important part of The Prince Of Pennsylvania, he makes no appearance or even garners a mention that I could find in Team Foxcatcher.
But is this new, longer film worth your time? If you are going to watch only one documentary about this truly strange tale of money, obsession, power and...Greco-Roman wrestling, which one should it be? Like the athletes in the film, let's take this fight to mat and grapple it into submission.
Which Dave Schultz is the "better" victim?
By all accounts, people gravitated to Dave Schultz. Gregarious, easygoing, and likeable, he was the center of the world Du Pont built at Foxcatcher Farms. More importantly, he was the only one who could be honest with Du Pont about his increasing paranoia and, as wrestlers in both films state, actually tried to be John's friend. Both films bring these points home nicely, although Team Foxcatcher complicates this image of Dave. As he descended into madness, Du Pont turned on the wrestlers he had befriended, going so far as to dismiss all the African-American members of the team because he developed an intense fear of the color black, and then pulling a machine gun on a wrestler he thought was scheming again him. Schultz apparently did little in response to these decisions, even pushing back against efforts by the leaders of USA Wrestling to separate the program from Du Pont. As wrestlers in the film state, Dave likely placed his own desire to compete in the next Olympics above any concerns about Du Pont's increasingly erratic behavior. This understandable but self-serving determination to remain at the farm as he became the main focus of Du Pont's paranoia likely contributed in some way to his own murder. If you are looking for an uncomplicated victim, Team Foxcatcher is not your best bet.
Winner: The Prince Of Pennsylvania.
Which gives us the best insight into John Du Pont?
Du Pont had some serious mental problems. Socially isolated from childhood and dependent on an overbearing mother, John used his money to surround himself with people he admired. He could never shake the idea, however, that his "friends" just liked him for his money. Following his mother's death and now free from her oversight, Du Pont's insecurities and darker tendencies took over. These problems, heightened by a love of guns and a growing dependence on drugs and alcohol, fueled an increasing paranoia that someone or something was after him. Which is just a really long way of saying the dude went freaking bonkers. While any explanation of what happened would be disturbing, Team Foxcatcher does a much better job, through the extensive use of home video, of capturing how oddly creepy the guy really was. At the same time, the film almost makes you feel a bit of sympathy for him. Abandoned by his father and controlled by a mother who disapproved of many of his life choices, Du Pont truly craved some kind of affection and obviously never learned how to build and maintain honest relationships.
Still -- batshit crazy.
Winner: Team Foxcatcher.
Which makes you care about wrestling?
Not a whole lot of people care about freestyle Olympic wrestling. The rules are hard to follow and to be honest it can just look like a bunch of sweaty guys rolling around on the floor. The thing is, though, I love obscure sports. I get giddy for a month before the Winter Olympics because of the extensive curling coverage that comes on at 5 in the morning. I just watched Netflix's documentary on extreme running, The Barkley Marathons. TWICE. I wanted to come out of Team Foxcatcher and The Prince Of Pennsylvania with a new appreciation for wrestling -- what attracted these guys to the sport and why they dedicated their lives to it. And, in the case of Dave Schultz, why he put his family at risk for this sport. Unfortunately, we get none of that in either documentary. Which is a damn shame.
Winner: Tie, sadly.
Which best demonstrates the corrupting power of money?
Americans kinda, sorta, maybe worship money. More importantly, we make great accommodations to, and have reverence for, people who have a lot of it. It's pretty obvious from both films that people tolerated a lot of weird stuff from Du Pont simply because of his money. While The Prince Of Pennsylvania holds back on exploring Du Pont's view of wealth, how he used his money to support his fantasy world, and assigning full accountability to those who enabled Du Pont, Team Foxcatcher does a more thorough job of revealing how many people feel they were under the influence of the Du Pont wealth. The film explains that Du Pont choose to fly the Foxcatcher flag higher than the American flag and describes how an entire senior wrestling league was created and filled with competitors who were paid to let Du Pont win. Even after Du Pont murdered Schultz, the local police allowed Du Pont to remain in his mansion, going so far as letting him get a good night's sleep, because he had spent decades financially supporting the department. It's clear that money allowed a socially awkward "eccentric" -- who, if poor, would have been completely ignored by most people -- to create a fantasy world he completely controlled. The corrupting influence of Du Pont's money extended to Dave's closest friends, some of whom remained at Foxcatcher after the murder. It's a little disheartening to watch them grapple with the knowledge that they should have done something about John's dangerous behavior, but chose not to.
Winner: Team Foxcatcher.
Which best explains the murder of Dave Schultz and trial of John Du Pont?
Both the 2014 movie and The Prince of Pennsylvania end abruptly with Du Pont's arrest. I was always bothered by this because, as any true crime fan knows, the trial can be just as intriguing as the murder, particularly with the possibility of an insanity plea on the table. I mean, hello, Making A Murderer. So I was pleased to see Team Foxcatcher decide not to draw out the facts of the killing and instead dedicate time to explaining what it took to get Du Pont in prison, and the efforts his lawyers made to bribe Foxcatcher wrestlers into siding with a murderer.
Winner: Team Foxcatcher.
While we get a strong, streamlined narrative in The Prince of Pennsylvania, it sacrifices complexity for efficient storytelling. The film gets the broad strokes right but misses a lot of the details and encourages us to see the murder of Dave Schultz in black and white terms. Like the numerous shots of the bleak Pennsylvania sky that appear in both films, life is more often colored by shades of grey. Team Foxcatcher understands this reality, delivers a more nuanced story and ultimately makes it harder to draw easy conclusions about this senseless murder. If you are going to watch only one documentary about this case, it should be Team Foxcatcher (although you should really watch both).
Winner: Team Foxcatcher.