TV Review: ESPN’s ‘The Prince of Pennsylvania’

As has been demonstrated time and again, movies aren’t necessarily the place to go for an unvarnished representation of reality, even in films based on actual events. So for those who saw “Foxcatcher,” ESPN’s “30 for 30” documentary devoted to the Dave Schultz tragedy, “The Prince of Pennsylvania,” will provide a fairly illuminating companion, offering another window into the peculiar behavior of the wealthy John du Pont, whose fascination with wrestling eventually culminated in murder. Even then, this economical one-hour film can’t entirely capture a story as hard to pin down as its bizarre central figure.

Director Jesse Vile opens with a chilling 911 call from the wife of wrestling champion Schultz, having just watched her husband coldly gunned down by du Pont, the privileged heir who, in underwriting the U.S. Olympic wrestling team, had turned it into his reason for being. Du Pont began throwing money around in the 1980s, when even gold medalists had to scrounge for financial support to stay afloat while they trained, creating a facility at his family estate that became a kind of surreal sanctuary for those who practiced there.

The movie, notably, centered heavily on du Pont’s relationship with Mark Schultz, played by Channing Tatum, the brother of his eventual victim. Mark is interviewed extensively here, along with a number of the other wrestlers, but the focus shifts pretty squarely to Dave, who seemingly felt he could control, or at least manage, du Pont, despite his drug and alcohol abuse and increasingly erratic and paranoid behavior.

While the movie frittered around the edges of what motivated du Pont, the documentary more directly zeroes in on his desire to achieve greatness through his contact with those who accomplished it within this sphere, including his pathetic desire to become an Olympian himself in middle age. There’s also the odd spectacle of du Pont initiating a sort-of senior wrestling circuit to share in the experience, as well as the acknowledgement that the wrestlers essentially tolerated and indulged him, even when he began ranting about threats and bringing guns into the facility.

“I pleaded with Dave, ‘Listen to me. You have to go,’” recalls Dan Chaid, one of the wrestlers, while an associate of du Pont’s says that the philanthropist “just wanted to be one of the guys.” Perhaps foremost, “Prince of Pennsylvania” focuses on how du Pont’s money allowed the situation to escalate, inasmuch as the building perception that the scion might need to be institutionalized wasn’t acted upon because the wrestlers were so beholden to him. Besides, as one notes, his attorneys likely would have made it a difficult process.

Films frequently come under fire for fudging facts, and “Foxcatcher’s” – despite the high caliber of the performances – provoked a mercurial reaction from Mark Schultz, who at various points criticized and praised it. (Notably, the documentary’s air date  was moved up a week to replace “Down in the Valley,” which ESPN bumped due to sexual-misconduct allegations regarding one of its subjects, Kevin Johnson.)

Clearly, “Foxcatcher” and “Prince of Pennsylvania” grapple with the same story from different angles. But viewed in concert, the two paint a complementary portrait of a madness that was sadly allowed to go unchecked, largely because of the size of a checkbook.

TV Review: ESPN's 'The Prince of Pennsylvania'

(Documentary; ESPN, Tues. Oct. 20, 9 p.m. ET)

Production: Produced by Raw TV.

Crew: Executive producer, Louise Norman; producers, Jesse Vile, Poppy Dixon; director, Vile; camera, Carl Burke; editor, Gideon Gold; music, Anne Nikitin. 60 MIN.

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