Patriotism, Personal Ambition, and "Foxcatcher"

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Truth is darker than fiction in Foxcatcher, a dramatization of the real-life relationship between millionaire philanthropist John du Pont and Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz, who was sponsored by du Pont in a bid for glory at the 1988 games in Seoul. Although the movie lays the doom and gloom on a bit thickly and is undermined by Steve Carell’s exaggerated performance as du Pont, it does explore what happens when patriotism becomes co-opted for other purposes.

According to the movie, du Pont’s motivation for putting his considerable resources behind the United States wrestling team is twofold and somewhat at odds. On the one hand, he sees it as a way of separating himself from his family’s legacy of competitive horse training. On the other, he’s somewhat obsessed with his family’s place in American history and sees his sponsorship as an expression of extreme patriotism.

Consider what du Pont tells Schultz (Channing Tatum) when they first meet. Noting that despite winning a gold medal in 1984, Schultz still lives in a dingy apartment and is left to pay for his own training, du Pont says, “We as a nation have failed to honor you.” He goes on to identify himself as a “wrestling coach … ornithologist … patriot.” Schultz buys into this combination of ardor and jingoistic fervor, leaving behind his older brother/trainer David (Mark Ruffalo) to move onto du Pont’s vast estate and head up the state-of-the-art wrestling facility he has constructed there.

All does not go well, something we expect given the ostentatiously somber mood evoked by director Bennett Miller and his collaborators. Cinematographer Greig Fraser works primarily from a wintry color palette, while composer Rob Simonsen employs low, rumbling chords on the moaning soundtrack. I won’t give away the specifics of what all this foreboding presages, except to say that du Pont is revealed to have primarily personal motivations that have warped any healthy love of country. And his pursuit of them leads to a tragic end. Foxcatcher may be heavy-handed, but as such its message is clear: there is a dark side to all-American ambition, especially when the flag is used to clothe personal goals.

This warping of proper patriotism is something with which American Christians often struggle. Although we are called to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s,” the lines often get blurred. Consider the appearance of American flags in church sanctuaries around the Fourth of July – gestures which can mean many different things depending on the congregation. In a helpful Christianity Today study guide on Christian patriotism, which among other things distinguishes between patriotism and nationalism, Ryan Hamm writes: “Jesus asks that we lay all of our loves - including our love of country - at his feet so that we may grant him the first fruits of our love.”

The du Pont of Foxcatcher wraps his private ambition in patriotic garb, to grim results. He takes what is truly important to him – status – and gives it a “proud to be an American” guise. The result is a fractured psyche that cannot hold. The film serves as a warning to us, as Christians, not to wrap our personal faith – that is, what we most value - in something like patriotic flare. Doing so may appear to bring unity to our identities as American Christians, but in reality we will have created a rift. Our patriotism will take on idolatrous overtones; our faith will lose its focus on Christ. Even as the love of country and love of God inform each other, they must remain distinct.

- Josh Larsen is editor of Think Christian. He also writes about movies at LarsenOnFilm and is the co-host of Filmspotting. Connect with him on Facebook and TwitterPhoto via Sony Pictures Classic.