ESPN 30 for 30: The Prince of Pennsylvania (2015)

Directed by Jesse Vile

The 2014 film Foxcatcher made quite the impact in Hollywood last awards season, garnering five nominations including Steve Carell and Mark Ruffalo for acting, and Bennett Miller for directing. One of the wonders of that film was the mood and atmosphere created by Bennett Miller. There was such an ominous feeling surrounding every scene, a sense of gloom and doom. For me, it was an introduction into the story of John du Pont and the Schultz brothers, as I am sure it was for many. But the fault of any dramatic interpretation of real life events is just that, they are an artistic interpretation. With ESPN’s latest, The Prince of Pennsylvania, Jesse Vile looks to reveal the truth of the story of du Pont and Schultz.

For those who have not seen the film Foxcatcher, or who are unaware of the du Pont story, John du Pont was a philanthropist and heir to the du Pont family fortune. He lived on Foxcatcher Farms in Pennsylvania. His mother, who also lived on the farm, had accumulated a great deal of awards and prestige in equestrian sports. Hoping to make his own mark in the du Pont family, John began an Olympic wrestling training camp on the grounds, inviting America’s greatest talent to the farm. His intentions were to rival the Eastern block countries whose programs were wealthy enough that the athletes could train full time. Key in the development of his program were Mark and Dave Schultz, brother and two of the top wrestlers in the country.

What Jesse Vile shows us in his film, however, is that du Pont was not a simple philanthropist with good intentions. Rather, du Pont was a troubled man with a lot to live up to, and an even bigger chip on his shoulder. Shrouded by the successes of his family and specifically his mother, du Pont, who failed as an Olympic athlete, strove for success in the barbaric sport of wrestling, seemingly to spite his mother. Vile does not focus on the motives of du Pont’s ventures as much as he does the proceedings. One of the strengths of the film is Vile’s one on one interviews with multiple Team Foxcatcher wrestlers, including Robbie Calabrese, Dan Chaid, Tony Dehaven, and even Mark Schultz himself.

I cannot imagine how difficult it must be for Schultz to recount his harrowing tale. I cannot easily recall the exact proceedings of last year’s Foxcatcher to comment on similarities, differences, or narrative choices, but The Prince of Pennsylvania‘s short one hour run time seems to stunt the development of these men within the fabric of their story. In some ways, Jesse Vile’s film feels as though it works as an epilogue to Bennett Miller’s, requiring the viewer have some background on the story, leaving the resulting film feeling slightly incomplete on its own. It is unfortunate that Vile was not able to use a full two hours, or even an extra half hour, to further development the characters in his narrative. He gives us only the most important pieces of du Pont and the Schultz brothers, only those which help the basic facts make sense.

The Prince of Pennsylvania is the second such 30 for 30 film to chronicle the events of a recently released Hollywood hit, following The 16th Man from the series’ initial Volume I, which told the same story seen in Clint Eastwood’s Invictus. In both cases, I think Hollywood delivered the more entertaining and fully fleshed out narrative, which is a shame, since each is the dramatized version of the story. Both are compelling stories and worthy of a lengthy, fully realized investigation and profile in documentary form, but where The 16th Man still felt effective and interesting, The Prince of Pennsylvania felt slight and incomplete.

**1/2 – Average

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