Foxcatcher Problems, or, The 2014 Channing Tatum Initiative Complete

This is my third attempt to discuss Foxcatcher, the recent true crime film that also happens to be my final stop on the 2014 Channing Tatum Initiative. My feelings on Foxcatcher are conflicted enough so as to make it nearly impossible for me to convey them without falling into a rambling pit. But hey, third time’s the charm, yeah?


Foxcatcher is based on a true story. It recounts the events leading up to a murder. The film is well written, the cinematography is gripping and the performances, particularly those by Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo, are engaging. Foxcatcher is by no means a bad movie. I’m just not sure I understand why it’s a movie.

In my mind there’s something of an unspoken understanding between an audience and a filmmaker when it comes to films “based on a true story,” particularly when that true story is tragic in nature. The understanding being that the filmmaker is given permission to utilize or exploit (depending on just how cynical we want to get) a real life tragedy in order to put forward for consideration some potential truth. 12 Years a Slave used the story of Solomon Northrup’s enslavement to highlight a sickness in American history that is more and more often overlooked or downplayed. Captain Phillips used the hostage situation on the Maersk Alabama to highlight a glaring juxtaposition between the might and affluence of the Western World and the sheer desperation of the Third World. The recently released Imitation Game uses the life of Alan Turing to recount the life of Alan Turing, a scientist whose achievements and prosecution are both perhaps not as well-known as they should be.

With these examples in mind I again posit that I’m not sure I understand why the tragedy at the murder of Foxcatcher has been adapted into a film.

I’ve come up with a few answers on my own but they all feel like I’m reaching, assigning a reason for a works existence after it already exists, rather than discovering the reason why the work was brought into existence in the first place. Perhaps Foxcatcher is meant to highlight the disparity between rich and poor and how easily we overlook the former using the latter as playthings. Maybe it’s something of a cautionary tale regarding undiagnosed mental illness. One of the parties involved has stated that the story highlights the lengths to which American Olympians had to go to match the training regiments of Olympians in other countries. But the film doesn’t seem to lean in to any of those thesis statements.

As near as I can figure the events depicted in Foxcatcher were adapted to film because someone thought it’d make a good movie. And they’re not wrong. If I didn’t know Foxcatcher was based on a true story I’d more than likely be singing an entirely different tune. But Foxcatcher is based on a true story. It’s based on a murder. And while I’m not saying it specifically sets out to exploit a murder for entertainment or ruling out the distinct possibility that I’m just being difficult and don’t get it, I ultimately found the film conflicted and problematic at best.

Mad Real, or, Captain Phillips: TRUE OR FALSE?

At face value the movie Captain Phillips is about all kinds of stuff: piracy, international relations, the global economy, financial disparity, a captain named Phillips, etc. But in its bones Captain Phillips is a story about two people trying their best.

Hanks is Phillips

Hanks is Phillips

The film, directed by Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy/Ultimatum), follows the 2009 hijacking of the cargo ship Maersk Alabama by Somali pirates and is based on Captain Richard Phillips’ written account of the events from the book A Captain’s Duty. There’s been a bit of a ruckus stirred by the crew of the Maersk Alabama regarding Phillips’ heroic portrayal in the film and it is perhaps worth noting that the film never displays a black screen with those ominous, all too familiar words – “Based on true events.” Though it is emblazoned across every piece of the film’s promotional material, even the credits specify that it is based on Phillips’ book.

Not that any of that mattered to me, the viewer, within the context of the film itself, because when the credits rolled on Captain Phillips journalistic accuracy was the last thing on my mind.

The film’s first act follows two men, the aforementioned Phillips and the pirate Abduwali Muse, through their respective mornings. Where Phillips drives a minivan to the airport with his wife, Muse sleeps in a rugged shack on the Somali coast. Where Phillips chides his crew for overextending their coffee break, Muse and his village are urged, at gunpoint, to take miniscule speed boats out on the open seas and bring home a pirate’s bounty.

These back and forth sequences set an important precedent. Muse and his fellow pirates aren’t portrayed as villains in Captain Phillips. Muse is not the shark in Jaws. He’s the flip side of a coin. A man who, just like Phillips, sets to the seas to do what his life demands he do. For Phillips, that entails extended periods of time away from his family and dealing with difficult union employees. For Muse, it entails making a living on a commercially overfished coast as a pirate.

The film puts a lot of stock into honest humanity and characterization. Gunshots, for instance, go a lot further here than in most entertainment in an age where we can spend hours on end interacting with a digital world using only an RPG. The first time Phillips and crew hear a gun go off they’re terrified. The characters’ expressions change. The tone of the film changes. All of the sudden mortality is on the table and the film never treats that circumstance lightly.

Boat fight

Boat fight

The hijacking of the Maersk Alabama is tense. You certainly won’t be falling asleep during the lengthy cat-and-mouse sequence. But the final act of Captain Philips had me on the edge of my seat, unable to blink, flipping through a rolodex of every nervous tick and fidget available to my muscle memory.

Greengrass masterfully sets a realistic tone for Captain Phillips that gives human life weight. Just the threat of a gun is upsetting. As it would be in real life. Playing on such a realistic game board, when the pieces are finally set for the movies’ climax there is a palpable sense of dread and anxiety. One that stays with you after the film’s end.

But the highlights of Captain Phillips are two scenes bookending that climax. Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi turn out two of the finest, realest performances in my memory and each of them in their own moments absolutely cut to the core of me.

I’ve heard actors’ performances referred to as “vulnerable” in the past, but the description had never made sense to me until I saw Hanks and Abdi in their roles in Captain Phillips. They’re playing real people here and they take that seriously. At a certain point show-boating and bravery fade away and what’s left is raw and unsettling.

Shit gets mad real.



Barkhad Abdi was a limo driver with zero acting experience before he answered a casting call for Captain Phillips. If he doesn’t have a prolific career in the film industry ahead of him then the industry is broken.

I don’t know how accurate a representation of true events Captain Phillips is. I don’t know if everything the film portrays happened for real. I can count on one hand the people on the entire planet who could accurately answer that question. But I’ll tell you this much, Barkhad Abdi and Tom Hanks’ performances in Captain Phillips are about as real as a movie can get.



1. How important is it to you that a movie “based on true events” remain faithful to those events?

2. Should movies even bother claiming to be “based on true events” when there are inevitably adaptive liberties taken?

3. Is any of this even real?


For more on this year’s award-nominated films:

12 Years a Slave

American Hustle

Dallas Buyers Club




The Wolf of Wall Street