As fans of 2014’s “Foxcatcher” probably know, Bennett Miller‘s film took a lot of liberties with the facts of the notorious murder of wrestler Dave Schultz by multi-millionaire John du Pont, especially in terms of timeline. And that’s surely okay, given that it’s a narrative film. But it also makes understandable the desire, especially on the part of Schultz’s wife, Nancy, who is an executive producer and a participant in Jon Greenhalgh‘s Netflix documentary “Team Foxcatcher,” to “set the record straight.” And for the most part, Greenhalgh achieves that, complementing the “then” of home movie footage with the “now” of contemporary interviews with friends, family and fellow wrestlers. But it also poses as many questions as it answers in the total omission of any mention of Mark Schultz — you would not know Dave had a brother from this doc, let alone one who was a fellow champion wrestler, who had lived on the ranch and known Dave’s killer before he did. “Team Foxcatcher” is fascinating, well-made and moving as a portrait of the lovable Dave, but it has its own agenda (however benign) and is best viewed as one more fragment of a story so multifaceted that its whole truth can probably never be known.
“All These Sleepless Nights”
The restless ecstasy of youth and the nostalgic longing for euphoric good times is gorgeously captured in Michal Marczak’s third feature-length effort. Hedonistic Polish adolescents and best friends Krzysztof and Michal navigate adulthood while attempting to extend the halcyon existence of everlasting parties and endless raves young adulthood (just about) still allows. It could be a soulful coming-of-age movie from Sofia Coppola shot with the magic-hour light of Terrence Malick and the abandon of Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers.” But for all its dreamy narrative qualities, Marczak’s film is actually a lyrical, fluid-motion documentary that challenges the distinction between narrative and nonfiction filmmaking, but in a highly unusual and beguilingly beautiful way. There’s more than a touch of French New Wave in the way the film’s story takes shape, and there’s a little broader context in the glimpses we get of contemporary Warsaw’s nightlife — from house parties to nightclubs to underground tunnels, to hedonistic raves in the city’s squares. But mostly it’s the firsthand evocation of the spirit of youth that makes ‘Sleepless Nights’ such an intoxicating experience.
“Jim: The James Foley Story” [Original Review]
One theme that seems to recur across this list is the desire to restore some balance to the memories of people whose tragic, violent deaths have tended to overshadow their lives (see “Team Foxcatcher” above and “The Witness” below). And a more recent example of that phenomenon is the murder of James Foley: If there is a single image that heralded the arrival of the age of ISIS, it may well be that of the American journalist wearing an orange jumpsuit and about to be killed by a figure in a black hood. But while inescapably political, the strength of Brian Oakes’ documentary on Foley (which picked up the Audience Award for Documentary) is that it is about “a wide scope of global issues through the intimate remembrance of one life.” Highlighting “the dangers of freelance conflict journalism — the limited resources, low pay, competitiveness, and adrenaline addiction…but also expressing the absolute necessity of this work”— ‘Jim’ becomes a portrait of a real person “who struggled with the realities and logistics of everyday ‘normal’ life — saving money, being organized — but who demonstrated an incredible amount of love and grace underneath torture, beatings, and captivity.” The film thus becomes a fittingly defiant testament to a man who was much more than one final, horrific image.
“Zero Days” [Original Review]
Sometimes we give star documentarian Alex Gibney a bit of a hard time when it seems like his prodigious work rate — the multiple films and TV episodes he shoots every year, and that’s not even getting into his overloaded producer’s slate — leads to less satisfying output. But then comes a doc as comprehensive, clear-headed and intelligent as “Zero Days” and we forget all about that. Detailing the evolution, rapid spread, detection and potential future of the Stuxnet computer worm sounds like a snore, and yet Gibney’s cautionary film is thrilling and not a little terrifying in how immediate it makes the abstract threat of cyberterrorism feel. And that is particularly impressive, given the catch-22 nature of so much of the high-level secrecy surrounding the worm and its origins. Using a breadth of access that is illuminating even when all the subjects can do is look directly into camera and say ruefully “no comment” (or when they actively try with Gibney to work around the terms of whatever NDA they are under), it’s as much about freedom of information as it is about the persistent and very real threat that Stuxnet and its ilk might pose to world security.
“Risk” [Original Review]
Hot off the heels of her Oscar-winning “Citizenfour” — the first-hand behind-the-curtain look at the Edward Snowden case — Laura Poitras returns to prove that Snowden is only one piece of a much larger, dense, and wholly cryptic puzzle. Following WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange around during his most triumphant and trying times (the years 2010-2016), Poitras’ camera exposes the human behind the stoic-looking Scandinavian façade, which ends up being the key ingredient in “Risk.” Cut up in 10 different chapters, the documentary follows Assange and his two closest teammates (Sarah Harrison and Jacob Appelbaum) as they fight for the right of free information, speech and the erosion of government censorship. Albeit decidedly less compelling than “Citizenfour” in terms of her subject, Poitras has nevertheless created a fascinating and increasingly urgent “documentary universe” about today’s Internet age, about real-life superheroes who take risks, suffer the consequences and wouldn’t change a thing if they were given a chance. A brilliant interview in which Lady Gaga questions Assange in the Ecuadorian Embassy near the end adds a light touch to what is an unquestionably important and serious declaration about what it truly means to be an activist in the 21st century.