So you’re making a biopic and you need a killer story. There are plenty of true stories out there to keep you making films for a long time. The only issue is, not all true experiences are made equal. Take for example Bennett Miller’s breakthrough, Capote. Miller adapts what may be the first classic of the true crime genre, In Cold Blood, and puts Philip Seymour Hoffman in the lead role. Now, I’m not saying Miller had it easy, but it’s a formula that breeds success: take a great true story and insert a stellar cast. The film of course was a hit with Miller nominated for best director, the film for best picture, and Hoffman taking home the Oscar for best actor at the Academy Awards. Miller followed up that success six years later with Moneyball, a film originally meant for Steven Soderbergh, who, suffice it to say, is more than adequate at his job. So a great film falls into Miller’s lap (which of course oversimplifies the process of selecting a phenomenal cast and directing them to yet more nominations).
At this point, Miller has more than proven himself, so he figures he’ll really challenge us with his next film: a true crime story based on articles that a stranger handed to him in an envelope at some event (true story) and then, we suspect, the stranger disappeared into thin air (unproven, but let’s pretend it’s true). From those articles Miller had his friend and Capote screenwriter, Dan Futterman, finish the script after the original writer dropped out during the writer’s strike. All of this is to say that Foxcatcher was doomed to be a great follow-up to Moneyball from the start.
So what went wrong?
According to critics (who came in at an 88% approval on Rotten Tomatoes), not much. And yet, while Miller was nominated again for best director and Steve Carell for best actor, Foxcatcher failed to make it into the already bloated best picture category. How did an Oscar-favorite director with a proven formula fail to make the same mark he did with his previous films? The story is compelling and the acting from Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, and Carell is great. So if all the elements work so well, why wasn’t this a bigger contender?
The thing about In Cold Blood is that, while the narrative is based in truth, Truman Capote was perhaps a better storyteller than a reporter. His investigation of the Clutter family murders is full of inaccuracies which, while damnable by the standards of journalism, make for great reading. Capote was perhaps more attentive to the spirit of the story than the truth of it, something the eponymous film makes clear.
Moneyball had its share of inaccuracies too, all for the benefit of the storytelling. Jonah Hill’s character, while based on a real person, is essentially fabricated. The hiring and trading of players relies more on the narrative than on the actual movement of players. Is that a problem? Of course not. Biopics have to change things around to keep the audience intrigued. Suspense that may not have existed in reality is created so that we can empathize with the characters onscreen. Relationships between characters take on more meaning than they ever did when those characters were just people living their lives. We see biopics because there is an expectation that the fantasy of film and the reality of the story will make us feel like life is more interesting, like at any moment our life could hit its rising action.
So what’s different about Foxcatcher? When John du Pont drives up to Dave Schulz’s house and shoots him three times, there is little evidence to support the action. It’s clear that du Pont has some issues, but the man rigging his own 50-and-over wrestling tournaments so that he can live out a fantasy is much different than the man who kills Schulz. As far as the actual crime, no motivation has ever been decided on. So it isn’t that Miller skipped over critical information, it’s that he told the story with too much focus on truth. That in itself isn’t a bad thing (we could all stand a little more truth, I suppose). But when a filmgoer sees a biopic, they expect certain things. Certain Remember the Titans-like things. Which is to say, certain made up things to string the facts together.
There’s much more to explore in the story of John du Pont and the Schulz brothers, but Miller and his writers seem intent on staying away from anything that might require some historical rearranging. A good indicator of the film’s accuracy is Mark Schulz’s initial response, claiming that the film was completely true. The moment that critics suggested a homoerotic relationship between Schulz and du Pont, Schulz revoked all support and went on the attack. So we can imagine that any interpretation of the film’s events would count as a lack of integrity on the part of the filmmaker. Foxcatcher never lets us too close to its subjects, even up to the end when we almost see Mark Schulz in his first UFC fight, but then Miller cuts it shorts, making a non sequitur out of what seemed to be a continuation of the story. Only the main three characters get focus, all other relationships being kept short and innocuous. Foxcatcher becomes little more than a true crime reenactment (though, let’s accept it, America’s Most Wanted never dreamed of this level of filmmaking).
What Miller’s film reinforces is something Raymond Chandler said, that writers can’t be completely authentic, which is why they instead have to be convincing. Foxcatcher avoids inauthenticity by jumping from great scene to great scene without making the connections clear. It’s a series of highly polished, superbly crafted, well oiled working parts that all go to different machines, incompatible as a whole but stunning as a series of loosely connected vignettes. What happened between the moment that Mark Schulz first takes a hit of cocaine and his first UFC fight while he was wrestling coach at BYU? There’s too much speculation to regard the telling of that story as 100% true, so we just drop Mark and focus on du Pont. What is it about Dave that makes him such a caring brother? We get hints about the brothers’ past, but, since we can’t ask him, we shouldn’t guess. This is all well and good, but the fact of making a film is that the narrative must stand on its own without the intrigue of the facts surrounding it (says the lowly film critic, pretending he knows what’s best). Did Miller fail? Of course not. He may have even set a new standard for the biopic, but that waits to be seen. Miller’s focus on hyper-truth is commendable, but in my opinion (and we’re just talking basic narrative cohesion here), his strict honesty might have gotten the better of him.