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Fact-Checking the Film: 'Foxcatcher'

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Oscar season is here, which means a flurry of fact-based movies are on their way to theaters. EW is fact-checking these films—everything from The Theory of Everything to Wild—to see just how true-to-life they turned out.

As portrayed in Bennett Miller’s stark film Foxcatcher, Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is a desperate man, looking for glory and for someone to guide him toward it. Miller is interested in the story of the wrestler and his strange entanglement with John du Pont (Steve Carell)—the rich heir who becomes Mark’s benefactor and ultimately murders his brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo)—as it relates to an American need to strive to greatness.

In his memoir, out Tuesday, Mark tells the story himself along with Dave Thomas. While the movie portrays Mark as a man with little agency, according to Mark himself, du Pont was never his savior, just a strange man offering him a job coaching at a university.

It’s important to note, however, that the book represents Mark’s version of events—it’s not an objective or investigated report.

Not that Miller was especially concerned with the hard facts in the first place. In the film’s press notes, Miller says the movie is “fact to fiction as a vehicle back to truth,” and he told The Dissolve that when the action moves to Foxcatcher, du Pont’s estate equipped with wrestling facilities, “time gets a little bit collapsed, and we don’t get specific about it.”

Here, we separate some of Bennett’s fiction from Schultz’s version of events.

Movie: In the movie, Mark Schultz is living a solitary life in Wisconsin before someone contacts him on behalf of John du Pont.

Reality: In Mark’s autobiography he explains that he was at a low point financially. He had been fired from his job at Stanford, despite having won the 1985 world title, and that firing created tension between him and his brother Dave. Though he won the 1986 nationals, he was “living in near poverty.” When he was first contacted by du Pont he wasn’t as isolated as he appeared to be in the movie. He was renting out an apartment in his father’s house in Palo Alto.

Movie: Mark, almost immediately after receiving a mysterious call from someone representing du Pont, goes to Foxcatcher. At Foxcatcher, du Pont pitches his plan for wrestling glory. Mark quickly decides to take du Pont up on his offer, trying to convince Dave to come with him.

Reality: According to Schultz, du Pont wanted Mark to be an assistant coach at the wrestling program he was starting at Villanova University, and had first tried Dave, who gave him Mark’s name. They had a number phone conversations before meeting du Pont at a hotel, not Foxcatcher. Mark writes about how he immediately pegged du Pont as a “loser,” who looked like he was “hooked on drugs.” Still, he agreed to take the job at Villanova, which meant that he “had been made a part of du Pont’s Team Foxcatcher.” Dave, meanwhile, headed from Stanford to be an assistant coach at Wisconsin. Mark didn’t actually move on to Foxcatcher until after du Pont fired him from Villanova after Schultz threw a party at his apartment attended by underage wrestlers where alcohol was present. Despite his dislike of du Pont, Mark wanted to stay working out with wrestler Dan Chaid, and du Pont said he could stay if he moved onto the farm.

Movie: In the film, sexual abuse by du Pont onto Mark and other wrestlers is only implied.

Reality: Mark explains in his book that du Pont took credit for creating a wrestling move called the “Foxcatcher Five,” which consisted of “grabbing someone’s balls with five fingers.” Mark writes that he “should have reported John to the athletic director.” Outside of that, another coach at Villanova charged in 1988 that he was fired because he refused “to submit to homosexual advances” from du Pont, according to Philadelphia Daily News report from the time.

Movie: Du Pont has Mark give a speech at a banquet that honors du Pont with over-the-top praise. On the helicopter ride to that banquet, du Pont coerces Mark into trying cocaine as Mark tries to learn the speech—which deems du Pont an “ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist.”

Reality: According to Mark’s own account, Mark was far more wary of du Pont. He describes how, though du Pont made him speak at a banquet, he tried to be funny, attempting not to say anything good about du Pont, keeping the focus on himself. As for the cocaine, Mark explains that du Pont actually asked him where to get cocaine when he moved onto the farmand they did it only two or three times together.

Movie: Dave finally comes to Foxcatcher before the Seoul Olympic trials to work with a frosted-tipped Mark, who has slipped into a cocaine-induced funk with du Pont.

Reality: Dave became a member of Team Foxcatcher and an assistant after the 1986 Worlds. “Knowing that Dave had no intention of leaving Wisconsin, I didn’t see any need to warn him about joining Foxcatcher,” Mark writes. Dave left his job at Wisconsin and moved to Foxcatcher after Mark had already left, even though Mark stayed at Foxcatcher, with a girlfriend, for a time following his loss at the 1988 Olympics. Dave’s murder didn’t occur until 1996.

Movie: During the Olympic qualifiers, after losing a match, Mark spirals, punching a mirror and binging on food. Dave pulls him out of his slump and helps him lose pounds in a short amount of time to make weight.

Reality: While Dave did help him lose the weight, it was another person who convinced Mark not to retire.

Movie: After leaving Foxcatcher, Mark becomes an MMA fighter.

Reality: Mark did make a stab at pro wrestling, taking part in only one match. But after leaving Foxcatcher he became a coach at Brigham Young University.

Movie: Before Dave’s murder, du Pont is still preoccupied with the Schultz brothers and wrestling.

Reality: According to a New York Times report, du Pont’s interest in wrestling was waning, and he stopped “donating money to the wrestling federation in June 1995. His name no longer appeared on team warmup suits. The number of Foxcatcher wrestlers living at the estate had been reduced to 4 from 30.” He had also become delusional, believing that “people or spirits were tunneling into the house to attack him.” Though it’s not specified in the film how long du Pont evades capture, after Dave’s murder there was in actuality a two-day standoff between du Pont and police.