Thursday, December 4, 2014

Crazy Like A Foxcatcher

With all the recent buzz for the L.A. and NYC big screen debuts of "Foxcatcher," it's challenging to hurry up and wait for the highly acclaimed film to reach my hometown theatres.

The reviews in The New York Times, USA Today and other sources do entice. And new videos showcasing Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo and Channing Tatum look like this Olympic film will be talked about through Oscar season and beyond.

But this post is more about the recently released book on which the silver screen "Foxcatcher" is based.

Written by Mark Schultz with David Thomas, under the full title "Foxcatcher: The True Story of My Brother's Murder, John du Pont's Madness, and the Quest for Olympic Gold," this autobiography reached bookstores in tandem with the film's initial limited theatrical release. The review copy provided by the publisher, Dutton, was a compelling read though it left me with a few tricky takeaways that made it a "good" book but not "great."

The biggest theme I found, though not sure it was intended by the author, is that Mark Schultz has lived a life with dozens of chips on his shoulder. Whether describing the hardscrabble California childhood of Mark and his older brother, Dave, or taking readers through phases of Mark's wrestling competitions and career, the commonality from scene to scene is, "here's a guy with a lot of potential who is also his own worst enemy."

In both professional and personal, educational and athletic scenarios, over and over the younger Schultz seemed to make decisions that undermined his potential. While reading a few passages, I wondered aloud, "how did this guy become Olympic champion with so many self-imposed hurdles?" (The answer is on the pages in the writer's detailed descriptions of his hard work, steadfast motivation to win, and encouragement from coaches and fellow athletes, most notably Dave.)

A reveal the author experimented with cocaine, with the man pinned as his career nemesis, raised my eyebrows. Not sure many other Olympic champions dared used this drug ... ever.

Another theme is family politics. Though it is clear Mark loved his brother and consistently looked up to Dave, this admiration was too often tethered to a brotherly jealousy. In many scenes, Mark's words portray an envy of Dave's ability to project a "good son/better athlete/can-do-no-wrong" persona -- a man who died knowing 10,000 'best friends' -- leaving Mark to paint himself as the family's black sheep.

Heavy doses of both the "chip on shoulder" and "family politics" themes also play out on the pages dedicated to describing John du Pont. Here's a guy who, from page one, was clearly bat shit crazy or walking atop the Crazy Town fence for a long time. But to what extent was his lunatic mental state fueled by his own dueling demons of "chip on shoulder" and the politics of his family name? The book presents examples for both.

Don't forget the cocaine. And there's one revelation in the book "Foxcatcher" mentioning du Pont's admission he also took daily doses of testosterone, the result of an unfortunate horse riding incident. Who knows what chemical cocktail coursed through du Pont on January 26, 1996.

"Foxcatcher" opens on that day and the moment of Dave's murder (via du Pont's .44 magnum revolver), followed by two parts, "Making A Champion" and "Destroying A Champion." The author describes his own path to Olympic glory but also elements of his brother's success story juxtaposed with du Pont's silver-spooned sports journey. I found the first half of the book interesting, with an appropriate level of detail, but also somewhat repetitive. Person X wronged me (Mark), I brooded, I wrestled, I won, Dave won, attention from me diverted, chip on shoulder, reflection and explanation, then person Y wronged me ... repeat sequence.

Scenes describing the brothers' victories at Los Angeles in 1984 offer a too-brief peek into the Games experience for both Champions. The "Golden Moment" chapter opens with a couple of pages of historic context that, for me, was not written in Mark's voice, but much of the chapter later describes the author's first person accounts of navigating the Olympic credentialing process, Olympic Village setting, his team's move to Motel 6 (to be closer to the wrestling venue, Anaheim Convention Center) many matches and his victory for Olympic gold.

His mom's playful but ill-timed invitation to Disneyland -- an athlete family perk -- is priceless. A victory parade car ride with Mary Lou Retton is another fun moment in detail.

As an Oklahoman, I appreciated Mark's take on his experiences living and wrestling in the state, and his departure from Oklahoma City brought this reader a smile (similar to Schultz's exit on I-40 westbound, more than once I've pulled off the highway to soak in the OKC skyline and reflect on time lived there).

Latter chapters of Part One set the scene of Mark's mid-1980s introduction to du Pont's "Foxcatcher" estate near Philadelphia, with many red flags revealed as Schultz settles in to a dream job later deemed a bait-and-switch. Schultz does not mince words with his disdain for then-leadership of USA Wrestling or several Pennsylvania institutions (local law enforcement, universities and museums), portrayed as eager Romulus and Remus-like figures suckling du Pont's multi-million-dollar she-wolf teats (my words, not those of Schultz/Thomas).

Part Two delivers more of a page-turning reader experience. Schultz describes the arc of his Foxcatcher tenure that crescendos and crashes with a thud at the Seoul 1988 Olympics. Sadly absent from Schultz's Olympic return was his "do or die" pre-1984 spirit, replaced with an eagerness to flip the bird to most of the folks who helped him get to Korea (with du Pont providing most of the shoulder chips).

The book also delivers through a researched timeline of events before and after du Pont shot Dave, the court proceedings that followed and some curious reveals on Mark's post-Olympic career on and mostly off the wrestling mat. Mark shares a touching and eerily apt story from Dave's childhood, as told by their father during his son's funeral, which is a poignant takeaway from the pages of "Foxcatcher."

It will be interesting to see how this book, marketed as "True Crime" versus a sports story, got transformed for the silver screen. It's a good read while awaiting the theatrical version, and no-doubt will serve as a reference point for discussion as the film gains more views.

Image of John du Pont via this site; Foxcatcher cover image via Dutton; 1984 photo via this site; Rome sculpture image via Wikipedia.

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