Thursday, August 4, 2016

Theory Thursday: "Foxcatcher" is the Best Sports Film Since 2011

Scene from Foxcatcher
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: The Summer Olympics start this Friday.
Theory: Foxcatcher is the best sports movie of the past 5 years.

Steve Carell
In my household, The Olympics are a thing of pride. While I am far from a sports enthusiasts in the years between, there is something about seeing the United States compete against the world that is thrilling and uniting. My mother carried the torch when the ceremony took place in Los Angeles, California. We make a big deal out of the opening ceremony and we have a strong disdain for Bob Costas' choice to politically charge every country's existence. There's a lot to gush over that could make for its own entry. However, I figured that to open up the field a little bit, I am going to talk about spots movies. 

In general, sports movies are extremely hit and miss for me. They're often your typical underdog story with triumphant music and montages. It's corny and very few films not named Rocky do it right. I understand their purpose, which is to rally up enthusiasm for the community. Whether it's backing a boxer or working as a team, there is something that draws us together in a sports movie that is missing in almost every other genre. Considering that I don't care about boxing, it's a miracle that films like The Fighter and Million Dollar Baby actually resonate with me. There's something about the strength inside that makes me feel more in tune with the subject. I want them to succeed.

So, where do we go for this sports movie column, then? It would seem cliche to tackle the broad spectrum of "Best sports movie ever." It is also unfortunate that in relation to Olympics, the only Best Picture winner (Chariots of Fire) is my least favorite. I decided to try and attempt to go more recent and tackle films from the past 5 years. Had I gone longer, I may have been able to mention The Fighter or Whip It as my favorite sports movies. Instead, I want to shine a light on the surprising lack of over-the-top amazing sports films of the past five years. They do exist, but titles like Million Dollar Arm fall into the generic cornball equation, and I personally find Unbroken a little too exploitative on the masochistic side despite genuinely enjoying the first hour or so. So, where does that leave us? I think it's a little tough to pick a favorite, but director Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher is probably the best sports movie of the past five years.

It's true that I had a long relationship with the film. I foolishly believed that it would win Best Picture back when it premiered at Cannes (over a year before release). I'm terrible at predicting things, and it wasn't until a friend explained it to me that I picked up on the homoerotic themes. It also seems unfair to choose a film so damning of competition as the best sports movie, if just because it's a cautionary tale that asks us not to go down the road that lead Olympic gold champion Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) to the door of John DuPont (Steve Carell): a millionaire who happens to have a bizarre inferiority complex with his mother (Vanessa Redgrave). DuPont promises to pay for Schultz's training, but he then wants results, which turn into the desperation to turn a fallen man back into a champion.

In a sense, this is one of the darkest and most honest films about the Olympics. Having won gold in 1984, Schultz is left in a crisis. All he can do is wrestle, which nobody seems to want him for. What he can do is give pep talks at random schools in order to encourage kids to be the best that they can be at sports. However, the side effect is that he's lonely and broken, driving home to a dumpy apartment with almost no financial security. He may be a winner, but only two years later, he is a nobody who doesn't have much going on. It's the type of dark hole that poses the questions as to what someone would do for financial security. It makes sense that he takes on DuPont's request, which will help him train athletes potentially for an upcoming Olympics ceremony.

The film has little to do with the sports side of things, at least directly. It more has to do with the homoerotic relationship between DuPont and Schultz, as well as the interference of Schultz's brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) - who also won gold in 1984 and is doing slightly better. It is why he's skeptical and tries to save Mark from what he sees as a trap. What ends up happening is psychological torture that is largely fueled by DuPont's own neurotic collapse as he goes from trying to please his mother to vicariously seeking glory through Mark's physical prowess. If it isn't DuPont yelling and brandishing weapons, it is Mark tearing apart hotel rooms. It's a mess to fight for glory only to be rejected.

Based solely on Oscar results, the film paid a lot of attention on Carell and Ruffalo's performances. It is true. They were both very good and Carell's dramatic turn was unnerving due to how emotionally lacking it was. However, it is Tatum's role as Mark that feels greatly ignored despite being arguably the film's best attribute. He is just as distant as Carell was, but his physical prowess makes his failures feel more tragic. You sympathize with him as he frustratingly smashes his face for failing to achieve victory. After all, he is a gold medal Olympic athlete. He should be able to overcome pansies from across town. Add in DuPont's frustration, and you have a ball of misguided rage that makes for a powerful performance. Considering that Tatum has gone from mediocre teen sex symbol to charismatic hunk over the past 10 years, this is one of the few films that should've guaranteed him an Oscar nomination. Ruffalo by comparison did nothing more than hunch over and grin in a funny way.

It may be a tough film to call great largely because of how underwhelming the atmosphere is. The exterior shots are of a giant ranch surrounded by forests. It almost seems to have a perpetual state of cloudiness. It's unnerving, especially when piled onto a nuanced story where everyone seems distant. There are those moments where things literally clear up, but it's always grounded in frustration. Frustration that Mark cannot live up to DuPont's standards, and likewise DuPont cannot live up to his mother's standards. It's the inevitable cycle of competition that is hurtful. It's what the film captures best. The fact that things end and Mark is no better at the end than he was at the start only shows how tragic the treatment of Olympic athletes can be following their brief moment in the sun. After all, they work hard to achieve glory every two years. What happens when you're physically unable to do that? That's the real horror story.

If you're stuck thinking that Foxcatcher is overrated or that there are better sports movies released after 2011, I daresay that it's tough. I want to believe that cinema's golden boy will always be sports movies, but they're genuinely underwhelming and stock with not too many going above and beyond the formula. Considering that I am not including documentaries (which would alter this piece greatly), it is difficult to find a sports film that tackles the idea of sports in a compelling and visceral way. I want to think that there's a more upbeat movie, but it's not coming to mind. All we have is a strong exploration of male aggression in sports via a true story that may be suspect in honesty, but is nevertheless an engaging journey front to back. Miller has done great work in the past (specifically Capote), and it's nice to see him doing more here.

My one fear is that this decade, which is already more than halfway over, will not produce their fair share of iconic sports movies. While it would help to raise enthusiasm for the Olympics, it doesn't seem like there's much to go off of. True, there was Race from earlier this year - which had good but not great reviews. There hasn't been a standout film since easily The Fighter or Black Swan in 2010. Foxcatcher is sure to appeal to those wanting a darker side to sports films, but I still hold out hope that the upbeat, unifying drama is somewhere out there waiting to be discovered. For now, I feel fine in declaring that Foxcatcher is the best sports film of the past five years, and is in some ways underrated due to how it fared during awards season. It's unnerving for sure, but well worth the ride if just for its specific vision.

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