Directed by Bennett Miller
Written by E. Max Frye & Dan Futterman
One qualm that always seems to find its way to the surface after the release of a film based on a true story is the question, “was it historically accurate?” There are two camps in this matter and that’ll be the way it is until the end of time. Entering the theater for this film, I knew nothing of the real life story of John du Pont and the Schultz brothers. Nothing. So I cannot comment on the historical accuracy of the film, but I can say that the historical accuracy of a film does not matter to me, and here is why. I view film as art, and as such it is an expression of the artist, or artists. The director, writer, actors, etc. all have a vision of the story they want to tell and how to tell it. Working within the framework of a true story can produce powerful results and often does. But there are also people who cry fowl when a major change is made to a true story, or even a small detail.
Neither camp is wrong, neither camp is right, we all want to see what we want to see in the unfolding of a story. With his new film, director Bennett Miller (Moneyball, Capote) delivers a story about wrestling champs Mark (Channing Tatum) and Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) and their eccentric millionaire benefactor/coach John du Pont (Steve Carell). Despite featuring the sport of wrestling prominently throughout, Miller makes his film about the characters and not the sport. What do I care about wrestling? The answer is not much, I’ve never had an interest in the sport of wrestling. But when the film turns into the character study of the two men who entrusted their training, and in the case of Dave, their family, to the generosity of the off-kilter du Pont, it becomes far more interesting.
Miller presents a slow burn styled film, building tension from the beginning between Mark and Dave, Mark and John, and John and Dave. It plods along for the greater part of the film, which tried my patience at times. As Miller lingers over a moment for a few seconds longer than expected, I began to wonder why. I’m not sure I ever figured it out. For this reason, however, it does become an actor’s film, as Miller allows his cast ample space and time to show off their abilities. Some take great advantage of this while others may suffer a little more from it.
Channing Tatum is an actor I have had to warm up to over the years, and after his performance here, I’m still not convinced he belongs in strong dramatic roles, but he holds his own as Mark, the younger brother looking to part ways from Dave professionally to make a name for himself. Mark Ruffalo on the other hand is masterful as Dave. His performance has a very physical presence that pops off the screen. Never too much, nor too little, he nails it perfectly. Carell is the one that may be stretching most, and I have been having a difficult time narrowing my thoughts down on his turn as du Pont. Prosthetic aside, Carell’s delivery feels just that, too delivered. I don’t know what the real John du Pont was like, but the performance came off just a bit too showy and as a result pulled me out of the film from time to time. Carell hits the emotions fairly well, playing du Pont rather coldly with undertones suggesting great tension and build up.
What makes the film notable for me is its examination of personalities, Mark and John in particular. I think the film, while told mostly through the perspective of Mark, is really more about John, and his relationship with his mother, played by Vanessa Redgrave. John is trying to find his own way in a family of talented millionaires, never sticking out with his own identity, never having his own pride to hang his hat on. He has his birds, but seems unfulfilled by it, and is jealous of his mother’s horses. Perhaps he is jealous of the attention she has given the horses over himself, her son, and perhaps he is jealous for how successful she has been at raising champion horses. As a reaction du Pont finds interest in the sport of wrestling, a sport which he knows his mother will resent. He recruits the best American wrestlers with the hopes that they will be his horses, his way to prove to the family and his mother that he is a worthy member of the du Pont family.
No, this film is not about wrestling at all, just like Moneyball was not about baseball. Bennett Miller has a keen interest in these character’s motives, and plans on working from this perspective to deliver his entertaining film. Now if only it hadn’t of been such a slow burn, or if Carell had not been so over the top.
*** – Good