When Daily Show Clowns Cry
By Johnny Pomatto
The only thing I knew about the story of John du Pont and Olympic wrestlers Mark and Dave Schultz, was the ending. I was hoping that Bennett Miller’s latest film FOXCATCHER, which depicts the events surrounding this trio’s relationship, would shed new light on the mysterious and haunting story, but sadly it only left me with more questions. Without getting into the specifics of the real life events, FOXCATCHER is a movie with a destination. Whether you know what’s coming or not, that destination looms over the whole film, which feels in no hurry to get to it or set up context for what will follow. Why do I feel like I know less about this story now after seeing the film than I did before I entered the theater?
Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo play Mark and Dave Schultz respectively, two gold medalist-winning wrestlers from the 1984 Olympics. Mark, who feels as if he’s always in his brother’s shadow, is contacted by billionaire John du Pont, (played by a physically transformed Steve Carell), who offers to sponsor and train Mark in the wrestling gym he’s built at his titular estate in Western Pennsylvania. “What does he get out of this?” Dave asks his brother. Seemingly just the pride of being on a team that wins a gold medal, but clearly there are other things going on, which the movie just barely hints at. Max Frye and Dan Futterman’s script seems to want the audience to do all the work for them. An early scene that we see of Mark and Dave silently wrestling each other seems to tell us so much about their relationship dynamic, but an hour into the film we’re still getting scenes of characters in silence, sending each other icy stares, without really ever conveying any new information about what is going through their heads. In addition to the silent scenes, we also get large events that take place off camera, leaving us to merely imagine what is going on behind closed doors. Though the script feels underwritten, the actors still manage to give commendable performances. Tatum does he best dramatic work to date, and the always excellent Ruffalo, while the most underwritten of the three, tends to have the most memorable moments in the film. But the main reason we’re being told to see this film is for Steve Carell.
Carell gives the kind of performance that Oscar voters love. He has two things going for him. First, he’s a comedic actor giving his first truly dramatic performance. On top of that, he’s a handsome guy who has drastically altered his physical appearance to look strange and grotesque. If you’re going to wear a fake nose, you might as well clear space on the mantle for your Oscar right now. We call this “Kidman’s Law.” In his early scenes, Carell does a beautiful job of seeming mysterious and even somewhat charming as he attempts to seduce Mark into coming to live under his watch. He tells Mark that his nickname is “Golden Eagle,” though it’s clearly apparent that this is a name that nobody but himself could have bestowed on him. His scenes of drunkenly horsing around with his wrestlers show a tragic innocence of a man who feels like he’s finally part of a team after a lifetime of loneliness, but as the movie goes on Du Pont becomes more and more goulish, with little explanation as to what has changed his attitude. Carell plays Du Pont as an overgrown child who has discarded his toy train set in favor of new play things, his very own wrestling team that he’s in no way qualified to coach or manage. But as he slowly becomes aware that his new friends are only humoring him because the checks are clearing, he no longer has interest in playing with toys that don’t want to play back.
The other reason I can’t in good conscience endorse Carell for any awards is that the script turns him into a supporting character in what is supposed to be his movie. Bennett Miller’s debut film, “Capote,” made us feel like we were learning new intimate details about a man who we already thought was too famous to have any secrets left. John Du Pont is hardly an iconic figure. There will be a fair number of people who go into this film thinking it’s entirely a work of fiction. I understand that any attempt to get inside his head and theorize what his true motivations were for his actions would be at least somewhat speculative, but I feel like the filmmakers had no theories of their own, at least that they were willing to share. Bennett Miller has made a beautiful looking film and has gotten a few noteworthy performances out of his actors, but I fear that he forgot to tell a story. By not providing any concrete answers, Miller probably thinks that he’s made a film that will be a conversation starter. Maybe so, but the first conversation my girlfriend and I had while walking out of the theater was about what could have been done to make this amazing slam dunk of a story into a better movie.
The story of Maziar Bahari, an Iranian-Canadian journalist unjustly imprisoned in Iran is an incredible one, though not the kind that would ordinarily get the Hollywood treatment. The other problem with the story is that it’s not terribly unique, as thousands of innocent people are imprisoned in Iran every year. One of the reasons Bahari’s story stood out and was discovered by more people than just your average political news junkie, is because of its connection with “The Daily Show,” whose satirical interview with Bahari was the primary cause for his four months of interrogation. The fact that Jon Stewart temporarily left his show to write and direct this adaptation of Bahari’s ordeal is what has gotten a film like this made and released on more than just a handful of screens, and for that we should be thankful. Stewart obviously feels a deep connection to Bahari’s plight and has made a very earnest and sincere film based on his book, “And Then They Came For Me,” and while the film is a well-intentioned passion project, it is still the work of a first time, (probably only time) filmmaker and it does suffer a bit for that fact.
While working on a shoestring budget, Stewart lacks the tools and experience to visually tell his story. Early scenes in the film attempt to recreate some of the post election riots in Iran, but unfortunately come across as clumsily staged crowd scenes. He fares better later in the film when confined to the interiors of prison cells and interrogation rooms. Stewart has more control over these situations and is able to let his admirable script do the talking, with fine assistance from the performances of Gael Garcia Bernal as Bahari, and Kim Bodina as the titular tormenter. Both actors are the result of unnecessary and puzzling colorblind casting, yet still turn in noteworthy performances that move and compel, even as their scenes together get repetitive to the near point of tedium. Stewart opts out of aggrandizing speeches but rather chooses to focus on Bahari’s lonely meditation and his routine, misguided questioning, and as these segments do sometimes drag, Stewart is surprisingly effective at providing levity with minimal but well used moments of humor. ROSEWATER is ultimately a humanizing story that serves as stand in for the experience of countless others. It’s a message film, and while the actual filmmaking sometimes makes it feel less like a movie and more like an appendix and companion piece to the already comprehensive coverage of the topic on The Daily Show, the message and tone we’re left with in its final moments is nonetheless stirring, and sufficiently helps you forget the cloudiness that could have derailed a film, as well as Bahari’s life.
Hear more of Johnny Pomatto’s reviews on his podcast MOVIES AND FILMS WITH JOHNNY AND FRIENDS available on iTunes