Team Foxcatcher is the latest “Netflix-exclusive” to try to draw subscribers to the streaming service. The documentary, which premiered last month at the Tribecca Film Festival, tells the tragic story of Olympic champion wrestler Dave Schultz and his murder at the hands of deranged billionaire John E. du Pont. If that story sounds familiar, it’s because the tragedy was recently dramatized in Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher (2014), which earned five Academy Award nominations last year. The documentary does much to fill in the gaps—and correct some inaccuracies—from the dramatization, but still contains some significant omissions.
Director John Greenlagh worked closely with Schultz’s widow Nancy, who supplied the bulk of the home video footage. The documentary’s great strength is how it humanizes Dave. The first scene depicts the hulking gold medalist dancing the hula while one of his teammates describes him as “a hippy wrestler.” The Palo Alto-born Dave exudes California cool and it’s easy to see why so many people—du Pont included—were drawn to him.
The film also humanizes du Pont without letting him off the hook. The camcorder footage of the billionaire portrays an alternatively pathetic and terrifying man. Steve Carell’s Oscar-nominated depiction of du Pont is understated in comparison to the real thing. Du Pont is clearly a victim of mental illness, though cunning in his ability to manipulate the elite athletes with whom he surrounds himself.
The documentary reveals an idyllic life at du Pont’s Foxcatcher Farm in rural Pennsylvania. Dave, Nancy and their two children lived in a charming farmhouse alongside other elite wrestlers and their families on one thousand wooded acres with a world-class training facility just a short walk away. For financially-strapped Olympic hopefuls, the opportunity to live and train here was too good to be true.
The film also sheds light on a largely forgotten episode, one that tainted the entire American wrestling community. Du Pont developed a negative obsession with the color black, which went so far that in 1995, he dismissed all of the teams’ African-American athletes, including 1992 Olympic champion and current Iowa State University head coach Kevin Jackson. Future Lehigh University head coach Greg Strobel carried out the firing. And though Dave tried to advocate on his teammates’ behalf, he and the other white Foxcatcher wrestlers and coaches stayed on after the incident. The three dismissed athletes appealed to USA Wrestling, but the governing body took no action.
Neither the dramatization nor the documentary is particularly clear on chronology. The dramatization is very loosely based on the memoir Foxcatcher: The True Story of My Brother’s Murder, John du Pont’s Madness, and the Quest for Olympic Gold (2014, with David Thomas) by Dave’s younger brother Mark Schultz. When du Pont built his training center, Mark was one of his first recruits. But while Channing Tatum portrays Mark in the dramatization as a tortured soul ensnared in du Pont’s dark orbit, the real Mark Schultz quickly tired of the billionaire’s erratic behavior and had left the farm by the time his older brother arrived. Which basically means that nothing in the dramatization happened as depicted.
But this also leads to a glaring omission in the documentary—Mark. Although the film doesn’t explain this, Nancy has said that the documentary focused solely on Dave’s years at Foxcatcher, which did not overlap with Mark’s. But Dave and Mark—who both won gold at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics—were known in wrestling circles as “the Schultz brothers.” It really isn’t possible to tell Dave’s story without Mark’s voice. This was also a missed opportunity for Mark to set the record straight after Tatum’s defamatory depiction of him in the dramatization. The worst smear is the completely baseless insinuation that Mark had a sexual relationship with his brother’s murderer.
Along with Mark, the documentary omits a number of high-profile Foxcatcher wrestlers. Fake wrestling fans will miss 1996 Olympic champion Kurt Angle. Fellow Atlanta gold medalist Tom Brands infamously accepted a Foxcatcher stipend—what 1992 Olympic bronze medalist Chris Campbell called “blood money”—after du Pont shot Dave. Brands is now the head coach of the storied University of Iowa wrestling team, and I would have liked to have seen him answer for this decision.
But as reprehensible as it seems for Brands and fifteen others to have continued taking du Pont’s money after the murder, their thinking wasn’t all that different from Dave’s as he tolerated du Pont’s increasingly bizarre behavior: “just until after the Olympics.” These athletes were not only dependent on du Pont’s money, but were also slaves to the Olympic calendar. They were unwilling to do anything to hurt their chances at winning wrestling’s ultimate prize, an opportunity that only arises once every four years. But on January 26, 1996, Dave Schultz’s quest to reclaim Olympic goal came to a senseless end.