“I want to talk to you about America,” says Channing Tatum’s Mark Schultz dispassionately to an unenthusiastic auditorium of elementary schoolers at the outset of Foxcatcher. Steven Rogers could have just as easily cribbed the line to begin his script for I, Tonya. Though much of the discussion around that film (directed by Craig Gillespie) has centered on whether its dizzying pans and hyperactive needle drops recall Scorsese (if you’re charitable) or David O. Russell (if you’re feeling less so), its thematic kinship with Bennett Miller’s 2014 feature deserves some serious scrutiny.
Yes, Miller’s chilly emotional remove and precise framing feels miles apart from Gillespie’s careening camera and jarring tonal swings. But Foxcatcher and I, Tonya function as opposite sides of the same coin, examining the all-American striver through the lens of culture and sport before arriving at an unsettling conclusion about what the country seeks from its competitors.
Both Foxcatcher’s John du Pont (Steve Carell) and I, Tonya’s Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) are black sheep in the world of Olympic athletics, made to be pariahs either for their class or in their class. Harding could nail figure skating moves so complex that I, Tonya had to recreate them in CGI because the production could not find a stunt double capable of executing them. Yet she still placed behind less proficient skaters because the subjective scores of the judges dinged her for not falling in line with the wholesome, pristine routines they expected. “You’re representing our country, for goodness’ sake,” a judge tells her off the record. “We need to see a wholesome American family.”
Du Pont, on the other hand, descended from dynastic wealth and lived on an estate dedicated to training thoroughbred racehorses. But as an oddball whose passions as a self-described “ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist” never quite jelled with the chosen sport of the upper crust, he seeks validation in sponsoring the sport of wrestling. Even though he attracts Olympian Mark Schultz to compete under the banner of Team Foxcatcher, his mother, Jean (Vanessa Redgrave), remains unimpressed despite his insistence that the Medici-like patronage helps promote American values. “It [wrestling] is a low sport,” she remarks, “and I don’t like to see you being low.”
For both individuals, their sport of choice becomes a proving ground in which they can blur — if not erase entirely — the class distinctions that frame it. With her defiant routines set to rock anthems rather than classical standards, Harding seeks to force the stodgy judges to uphold the meritocratic ideals of the sport. Unable to afford the necessary attire to project the ice princess ideal, she doubles down on her “white trash” origins. They will either accept her as she is or not at all.
He only cheers on from the stands, but du Pont has plenty at stake in the wrestling ring when Schultz and his teammates compete. His quest centers less around individual glory and more around the acceptance of wrestling as a respectable avenue for competition. Eschewing the elite breeding and exclusivity of horse racing, du Pont immerses himself in wrestling because he views it as a projection of American might and strength. There’s no pageantry, pomp, or circumstance in the sport. Just a pure, unadulterated physical brawl where brute strength wins.
Neither Harding or du Pont is particularly “likable” in the traditional sense. They inspire revulsion, or perhaps pity, before they invite sympathy. But both seek nothing less than the fulfillment of the American Dream, the promise that the right alchemy of perspiration, inspiration, and dedication can overcome any obstacle. (And as Olympic competitors, they are literally representing their country.) I, Tonya and Foxcatcher deliberately strain to see how deeply we hold this ideal by presenting difficult test cases. The films thrive on the energy drawn from the dissonance between our values and our gut feelings.
These protagonists are aware that their stories are far from the crowd-pleasing Horatio Alger yarns, so they utilize filmed media and direct address to recast themselves as heroes to an otherwise doubtful public. In this medium, they repackage their prickly personas and wrap themselves in the American flag to contextualize their actions. I, Tonya frames the skater’s life story through the lens of (according to the onscreen titles) “irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews” with Harding herself, in which she declares her innocence and decries her victimization at the jaws of a blood-thirsty country. Du Pont, on the other hand, finances his own puff piece so he can pontificate about his status as a benevolent Medici of the wrestling world — and even wields it as a cudgel to get rival power center Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) to declare him a mentor.
“America, you know,” Harding observes at the end of I, Tonya, “they want someone to love but they want someone to hate. And they want it easy.” While du Pont is far more responsible for his own fall from grace than Harding (there’s just no comparison when it comes to first-degree murder), both quickly devolve from aspiring poster children for American ideals to punching bags for American rage. Unable to chase the American dream, they — and many of their associates — get trapped in a nightmare of judgment, vilification and shame.
As differently as the two films approach their protagonists, it’s a little eerie that the closing scenes of Foxcatcher and I, Tonya are mirror images of each other. Both feature Olympic athletes fallen from glory (Harding and Mark Schultz) in a cage fight. The action is clearly staged, but the crowds couldn’t care less. They cheer on the theatricality and violence. These athletes trade in their athletic skill for spectacle because it’s the public appetite. Maybe they didn’t want the American Dream after all. Maybe they just wanted the simple conflict of bodies clashing and didn’t care about the triumphant narrative.
Many quote-unquote “important” films are looking for the roots of America’s current societal malaise in obvious times like the ‘40s (Mudbound), ‘60s (The Shape of Water, Detroit) and ‘70s (The Post, Battle of the Sexes). Foxcatcher and I, Tonya make an excellent case that the ‘90s are a fertile, untapped decade for immediately relevant American stories. In a decade when the country enjoyed peace and prosperity like few times in history, perhaps America showed its truest colors. Rather than renewing our commitment to equality and opportunity, the country squandered a chance to enact meaningful changes and reforms for domestic life. Dismiss these films’ warnings at your own peril, because Harding and du Pont were not the only people in the ‘90s who had big dreams, low public esteem, a knack for media manipulation, and a penchant for staged combat. Millions of Americans did, and now one sits in the Oval Office.
Marshall Shaffer lives in New York, denies all allegations of knee-smashing and wrestler-shooting.