He pulls off such a sturdy performance in Foxcatcher that it seems unfair to compare Steve Carrell's role as John Eleuthère du Pont (ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist) to his character in The Office, Michael Gary Scott. But thoughts of the hapless manager of Dunder Mifflin's Scranton branch kept ghosting up while watching Bennett Miller's new film. The connection was cemented by one quote from Foxcatcher Wrestler Dan Mayo, interviewed on TV just after du Pont surrendered to police in 1996. "He was strange in some ways," says Mayo, "but he had such a good heart and he meant well, that you dealt with his different ways of dealing with things." Such a line feels like it could have easily come out of a talking head describing Michael Scott on The Office.
Both men fancy themselves leaders of men, use the rhetoric of inspiration, but are not themselves inspirational. They have nothing practical to impart, and ultimately feed off the effort and success of others and congratulate themselves by association. They clank around in the armor of platitudes, and one wonders what kind of spindley frailty is inside. The inner person found in The Office is ultimately endearing and redemptive; the occupant found in Foxcatcher is... Well, you'll have to see the movie.
Of course du Pont was a real man, and it's impossible to know the definitive guts of a human. But we know the outside, and can guess some at the inside. The du Ponts were old money, American royalty - "A Dynasty of Wealth and Power" - who made their fortune with gunpowder and kept the wealth in one place by arranging marriages between cousins. John du Pont was an heir to that wealth and power. His greatest achievement in life - other than penning a few bird books - was being born into that family.
He knows what achievement looks and sounds like, but no idea how to build it from the ground up. This is baldly obvious when du Pont takes on a gold medal-winning wrestler, Mark Schultz. A moving meat machine - played quietly by Channing Tatum - du Pont has no idea how to pilot Schultz. It's Mark's brother David - played so wonderfully and kindly by Mark Ruffalo - who has the learned, caring sensitivity to guide and inform him. Du Pont's attempts are so clueless but performed with such confidence that he can - like Michael Scott - pass as absurd, harmless, and - in the face of better judgement - charming.
When asked at the Film Society of Lincoln Centre what attracted him to the material, writer and director Bennett Miller said "I thought it was funny. Seriously... It was funny, except the outcome was horrible."
And this is the ongoing tension in Foxcatcher, the pall that darkens the large absurdity of a character like John du Pont, and the world and reality he builds around him at Foxcatcher Farm. Whether or not he's unsound, du Pont certainly doesn't know what he's doing, only how to try and make it seem, with speeches, with uniforms, like he knows what he's doing. "What does he get out of this?" David asks as he finds out about this blooming mentorship. Not sure about it himself, Mark responds cluelessly, but confidently: "America. Winning."
In my review of the exceptional documentary The Overnighters, I touched on the idea of American exceptionalism, that belief that Americans are inherently blessed, are predisposed for success. Arguably, there are two types of exceptionalism: passive and active. Active exceptionalism is fueled by the belief that America is blessed, but acknowledges that work is still required, that greatness needs to be renewed constantly. But a person who is passively Exceptional needs only to exist to be great. Their exceptionalism is inherited, victory is certain.
When a person like du Pont, a proponent of passive exceptionalism, is forced to live in a reality that doesn't care about that inheritance, things won't end well. Foxcatcher, like The Overnighters - and like, excuse me, The Office - dwells on the broken promise of achievement that a person thinks was made to them. The chanting of "USA! USA! USA!" that closes Foxcatcher feels as damning as it does celebratory.