Film Review: ‘Team Foxcatcher’

Netflix documentary examines the true story behind 2014’s 'Foxcatcher' via wrestling widow Nancy Schultz.

'Team Foxcatcher' Review: Netflix Doc Examines
Photo courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

“Team Foxcatcher” begins and ends with Nancy Schultz revisiting the farm of billionaire John Du Pont in Newtown Square, Penn., where she lived with her wrestling-champion husband Dave Schultz until his 1996 murder at the hands of their benefactor. While her presence provides an intimate entry point into this nonfiction retelling of that terrible true-life tale, it’s the absence of Dave’s brother and athletic partner, Mark, that most glaringly sticks out in director Jon Greenhalgh’s film. That incompleteness is a nagging issue throughout, though it shouldn’t hinder this otherwise sterling documentary’s appeal when it debuts exclusively on Netflix later this month.

No reason is given for the omission of Mark, who’s neither heard from nor seen in “Team Foxcatcher’s” copious home-movie footage — shot by Nancy as well as other wrestlers training at the 2,000-acre estate. But his nonappearance will surely strike many as conspicuous, especially in light of the prime role he played (thanks to Channing Tatum) in Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher.” Instead, and unsurprisingly given Nancy’s executive-producer credit, the focus is on Dave, a balding, hairy-chested superstar whose prowess on the mat was equaled by his warm, friendly, goofy demeanor, which many assert was the main reason they agreed to follow him to the lavish training facility constructed on the Foxcatcher Farm by Du Pont.

As the documentary makes clear via archival clips, news broadcasts and fresh interviews with team members, coaches, officials, lawyers and employees, all of it set to John Kusiak’s elegiac score, Du Pont was a lonely, socially inept prince desperate to be embraced by his tough world-class athletes as “one of them.” And Dave — sympathetic to the man’s strangeness, and dependent on him for support for not only himself, but his wife, kids and the athletes he’d recruited on Du Pont’s behalf — was his favorite, an open-hearted bear of a man who not only embodied the athletic greatness Du Pont himself coveted, but humored the wealthy philanthropist’s own wrestling dreams, going so far as to coach him in competitions for which, as old videos expose, he was thoroughly unfit.

Greenhalgh assuredly diagrams the relationships between Main House-residing Du Pont and his wrestlers, who (along with their families) became a close-knit community living in close proximity in houses on the property (Nancy dubs it, in hindsight “a sports utopia”). Those dynamics, however, soon became intertwined to the point of knottiness, particularly with regards to Dave’s friendships with Valentin Yordanov and Dan Chaid, two teammates whose waxing and waning favor with Du Pont eventually led to frayed ties between Du Pont and Dave, culminating in the fatal Jan. 26, 1996 shooting that took Dave’s life.

“I’m in charge around here and that’s the way it’s going to be,” Du Pont can be heard telling police officers during his post-homicide stand-off with authorities. That sense of God-like entitlement, of thinking that his wealth afforded him permission to have it all and do as he pleased, is ever-present in “Team Foxcatcher,” be it in his chummy shooting-range affiliation with local cops, to the fact that he hung the Foxcatcher Farm flag higher than the Stars and Stripes.

Such arrogance was paired with paranoid insanity, and Du Pont’s former wrestlers recount one chilling tale after another — of Du Pont spending hours watching static recordings of the nearby woods (and stating he saw non-existent things moving in them); of him suspecting that the property’s trees were actually mechanical; and of him claiming that Dave was using secret underground tunnels to infiltrate his mansion and hang out inside its walls.

The sight of Du Pont, in an old video, telling the camera “On to the world championships and a win. Kill, Kill, Kill!” is unavoidably unnerving, though more distressing still is “Team Foxcatcher’s” coda, in which it’s revealed that — even after Du Pont’s conviction — many wrestlers chose to remain behind and continue training on his land. As Dave’s now-grown son implies, those decisions are evidence that, for some, ignoring one’s conscience and better judgment is a price worth paying in order to achieve a coveted dream.

Film Review: ‘Team Foxcatcher’

Reviewed online, Stamford, Conn., April 13, 2016. (In Tribeca Film Festival — Spotlight.) Running time: <strong>91 MIN.</strong>

  • Production: (Documentary) A Netflix Documentary, Madrose Prods. presentation, in association with Hattasan Prods., of a Neil Fazzari production. Produced by Neil Fazzari, David Bennett, Jeff Callard. Executive producers, Lisa Nishimura, Adam Del Deo, Ben Cotner, Jeremy Bailer, Ben Hatta, Nancy Schultz. Co-executive producers, Edward McBride, Rich Tavoso, Jerry Cudzil, Michael Cudzil.
  • Crew: Directed by Jon Greenhalgh. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Neil Fazzari; editor, Shelby Siegel, Jon Greenhalgh, Neil Fazzari; supervising editor, Richard Hankin; music, John Kusiak; sound (DTS/SDDS/Dolby Digital); supervising sound editors, Nicholas Montgomery, Tom Efinger; re-recording mixers, Tom Efinger, Nicholas Montgomery; visual effects, Przemyslaw K. Radlowski; associate producers, Dan Chaid, John Hyams.
  • With: Dave Schultz, Nancy Schultz, John Du Pont.