“The Prince Of Pennsylvania” isn’t the first 30 For 30 episode to cover the same ground as another documentary or major motion picture, but the lack of acknowledgment of the competition is more distractingly conspicuous here than ever before. Last year, when the movie Foxcatcher was on the awards circuit, one of its subjects—Olympic champion wrestler Mark Schultz, played by Channing Tatum—briefly went on a rampage against the film, complaining that in telling the true story of eccentric millionaire John DuPont’s murder of Mark’s brother Dave, director Bennet Miller and screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman took too many liberties. Foxcatcher is a moody meditation on how wealth, accomplishment, and envy intersect in America, and to make its case, the movie exaggerates the characters of Mark and John, and suggests a homoerotic subtext to their relationship. Mark Schultz has since apologized for slagging the film, but it’s still clear that he didn’t enjoy the experience of having his real life transformed into a literary theme.
Director Jesse Vile’s hourlong documentary version of the DuPont story features an interview with Mark Schultz, who offers his own impressions of both his brother Dave and DuPont. “The Prince Of Pennsylvania” isn’t about Mark Schultz—other wrestlers who trained in John DuPont’s Foxcatcher Farms facility are featured just as prominently—but it does allow him to give his side of the story. Which is why Vile’s decision not even to mention the movie is strange. Would ESPN have greenlit “The Prince Of Pennsylvania” if there’d never been a Foxcatcher? Is there some reason why no one in the doc can say—even in passing—that this episode intends to set the record straight on a few things? Because just about anyone who’s seen Foxcatcher would love to hear DuPont’s ex-wife or one of his wrestlers talk about what Steve Carell got right and wrong when he slapped on a prosthetic nose to play John.
As for those who haven’t seen Foxcatcher… well, John DuPont’s story is still interesting, and Vile (best-known for the very good doc Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet) assembles it just fine. By beginning with the harrowing post-murder 911 call—played over placidly pastoral images of Foxcatcher Farms—Vile establishes the discord between DuPont’s enviable wealth and the psychotic paranoia that led to him shooting Dave Schultz. Through interviews and archival footage, “The Prince Of Pennsylvania” explains how DuPont built a fantasy world for both himself and for his Olympic athletes: a place where they could be paid what they genuinely deserved as champions, provided they were willing to pretend that he was a wizened old athlete himself. The documentary covers a lot of the same ground as the movie in terms of what the DuPont/Schultz saga really means. It’s about a man who wanted to buy credibility in a world he couldn’t otherwise enter, and about the working-class wrestlers who were eager to take his money.
The difference is that “The Prince Of Pennsylvania” mostly tells, where Foxcatcher shows. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Vile has a lot of video of DuPont with his wrestlers, and he’s such an unusual subject—with his blank eyes, wide smile, and nasal monotone—that just hearing about him or even seeing Carell portray him isn’t the same as watching the real guy wander in front of one of his wrestlers’ mini-cams and awkwardly say, “Hi there!” It’s also helpful to see the real Schultz brothers in action: Dave pulling opponents like taffy, and Mark quickly dispatching his rivals and then doing a celebratory flip.
The question is whether “The Prince Of Pennsylvania” ultimately amounts to much more than a belated DVD/Blu-ray extra… or an extended “subtweet.” Even though the documentary itself doesn’t want to be explicit about it, its most fascinating passages are the ones that deviate most dramatically from Foxcatcher: like Mark talking about how he rebelled against John’s efforts to make him the face of the team; or him saying that Dave (who comes across a sweetheart when played by Mark Ruffalo) had a way of getting under people’s skin; or the other wrestlers mentioning that in the months before John snapped and shot Dave, he was convinced that the actual foliage at his estate was moving toward him.
Otherwise though, “The Prince Of Pennsylvania” has the style and feel of a conventional TV true-crime documentary, right down to the wall-to-wall moody synthesizer score. It’s possible that this episode would play better if it weren’t coming out a year after an Oscar-nominated prestige drama. But even if Foxcatcher didn’t exist, there’s something a shade too blunt about this 30 For 30. As it turns out, Mark Schultz is still being used as a symbol of the American class struggle. Its just that this time, the film he’s in is more explicit about what it thinks his story means.
- I’m not going to be writing about every 30 For 30 this season, but I’ll be checking in whenever an episode looks especially promising—as the next couple do. (Those would be: “The Gospel According To Mac,” airing November 3rd, and “Chasing Tyson,” on November 10th.) I’ll be especially curious to see how the series holds up now that its original co-creator Bill Simmons is no longer part of the ESPN family. Will the documentaries be as frank or arty as some have been in the past? This week’s episode’s okay, but I wasn’t overly impressed by the season three premiere, “Trojan War.” I haven’t seen the postponed episode “Down In The Valley,” but based on the reviews I’ve read it sounds pretty one-dimensionally boosterish. I love 30 For 30, so I’m hoping the quality level will get back to where it has been as the season continues.