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2014’s Foxcatcher centers on an egotistical billionaire who fancies himself America’s savior

It functions well as a cautionary tale of allowing power to run amok.

Steve Carrell plays delusiona billionaire John du Pont in Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher (2014).
Steve Carrell plays delusiona billionaire John du Pont in Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher (2014).
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Every weekend, we pick a movie you can stream that dovetails with current events. Old, new, blockbuster, arthouse: They’re all fair game. What you can count on is a weekend watch that sheds new light on the week that was. The movie of the week for January 28 through February 3 is Foxcatcher (2014), which is available to digitally rent on Amazon, YouTube, iTunes, Google Play, and Vudu.

Donald Trump’s presidency is officially underway, and now that he’s spent a full week in office, the breakdown of news out of the White House appears to be half pique, half authoritarian strong-arming.

It’s left me thinking that one obvious analogue to the enigma that is Trump is Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, the 2014 film about John du Pont, the wealthy heir who was convicted of murdering of champion wrestler Dave Schultz.

And while using pop culture as a lens through which we make sense of the world can risk turning real-life dangers into just entertainment metaphors, it’s been nagging at me that Foxcatcher now seems prescient in all the worst ways.

Steve Carell in a fake nose plays the real John du Pont, the heir to the family fortune who lives on a huge estate in Pennsylvania and has whole rooms full of trophies to himself. He fancies himself a renaissance man — ornithologist and wrestling coach and philatelist and explorer and philanthropist — and winds up essentially buying 1984 wrestling gold medalist Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) by funding Schultz to train for the 1988 World Championships and Olympic gold at his estate.

“Buying,” because Schultz is one of many elite wrestlers training at du Pont’s beck and call. Du Pont says his aim is to build new American heroes the country so desperately needs: “We as a nation have failed to honor you,” he tells Schultz, who buys it because he knows it’s true (he’s been living off ramen in an apartment over a garage since his 1984 win).

Eventually, Schultz’s brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) is convinced to come train the wrestlers as well — but he’s not as enamored of du Pont as everyone else.

John du Pont in front of his prized flag in Foxcatcher.
John du Pont in front of his prized flag in Foxcatcher.

Du Pont’s perception of himself as a preserver and champion of America wallpapers the film. His house is covered in flags. He considers himself a keeper of America’s legacy. His self-dubbed nickname is “Golden Eagle” — you can’t make this stuff up. As he settles into his office chair, he’s dwarfed by a framed, battle-worn flag that hangs from the wall behind him.

But as the tale goes on, it becomes clear that du Pont works from a position of extreme insecurity that manifests as overconfidence. His mother disapproves of him and the “low” sport of wrestling. Du Pont is determined to prove his worth, and he works as a sort of guest trainer for Schultz and the other wrestlers. The scenes in which he tries to show off for them as they nod and try to look positive are excruciating to watch, but weirdly reflective of a future in which hordes of powerful people would try to play along with a wealthy, deeply insecure man made president.

When I originally reviewed Foxcatcher, I wrote this about the film:

Despite the manufactured nose and overbite, it's hard to miss Carell's Office boss Michael Scott under du Pont's skin, and it's startling, but it makes sense. Both deeply insecure characters exist in their own lonely fairyland of privilege, so cocooned by circumstance and power that they've never developed the self-awareness to recognize (or face up to) how ridiculous they are. Remember — how could you forget — how Michael Scott fancies himself a stand-up comedian? And a screenwriter? Director? Athlete? Ladies' man? World's Best Boss?

Make some swaps up the economic food chain and that's du Pont, who's assigned himself his own ludicrous nickname. Except what saved Michael Scott was that at the end of the day, he wasn't really a bad guy, and he cared about (some) people. John du Pont doesn't care about people as people; for him, they are replaceable playthings to be bought and sold like trophies and pets and toy trains. His world has always been molded around him; the only person he hasn't been able to control is his mother, who prefers elite show horses.

But everyone lets du Pont do what he wants and proclaim his own greatness — in service of America, of course — because he’s rich, and when you’re a star, as the president himself has said, they let you do it.

Eventually all this leads to Dave Schultz’s death, in a fit of du Pont’s rage, after he finally dares to say no to du Pont and challenges his ego. So Foxcatcher is ultimately a tragedy. But it could, if we’re paying attention, be an instructive one.

Writing about the movie at Forbes, Greg Satell — who had personal experience with du Pont and Foxcatcher Farms, where the team trained — wrote the following:

By all accounts, in the months leading up to the shooting John’s behavior became even more bizarre. He kicked three African-American athletes off the farm, saying that Foxcatcher was run by the Ku Klux Klan and confronted one wrestler, Dan Chaid, by pointing an assault rifle at his chest. The warning signs were there, but it was hard for anyone to admit it.

Talking about John’s mental state at the training center was strictly taboo, but his problems were an open secret. The subject would come up in wrestling circles and we would snicker and chuckle and say things like “ticking time bomb” and “trouble waiting to happen.” Nobody wanted du Pont’s largesse to end, so we laughed it off and let the pangs of unease subside.

When I heard that John du Pont had shot Dave Schultz, I was horrified, but not completely surprised. We all knew that something would eventually happen, although never dreamed that it would be so tragic. Yet when all you do is hope for the best, things have a way of turning out for the worse.

I’m not suggesting Donald Trump will shoot someone (though Trump himself has declared that he could), and as I said above, it’s never a great idea to view pop culture solely as a way of navigating present crises. But Foxcatcher still functions well as a cautionary tale — a kind of legend of power and delusion run amok, and a fable about the dangers of turning a blind eye. We’d do well to keep du Pont’s story in mind.

Watch the trailer for Foxcatcher:

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