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NPR Arts & Life

Toronto, Day 5: A Different Steve Carell And The Sad Tale Of Alan Turing

Steve Carell and Channing Tatum in <em>Foxcatcher</em>.
Steve Carell and Channing Tatum in <em>Foxcatcher</em>.

Steve Carell is not unrecognizable in Foxcatcher, from director Bennett Miller (who also made Moneyball and Capote ) but it's instantly clear that his transformation is meant to be substantial. Carell plays the very rich and very strange (and very real) John du Pont, who in 1996 killed Dave Schultz (played here by Mark Ruffalo), an Olympic wrestler who was working as a coach in the elite wrestling program du Pont operated on his enormous estate.

The story begins with Dave Schultz's brother, Mark (Channing Tatum), a quiet and focused wrestler who's just back from the 1984 Olympics when he gets a strange phone call summoning him to du Pont's estate, where he's invited to run a new wrestling program to be called Team Foxcatcher. Later, Dave Schultz — initially skeptical of this multimillionaire so interested in his younger and somewhat naive brother — joins up as well.

Part of what makes Foxcatchercomplicated is that this story is largely the story of Mark Schultz and John du Pont. The former is a simple guy so shy that it's hard for him to make eye contact. The latter is an eccentric at best, even at the beginning, and latter was eventually sentenced on the theory that he was guilty but mentally ill. Both of these men are, in their own ways, impenetrable, and there's no clear, clean story in which because of A and B and C, D eventually happened. The film is quiet and spare, with Ruffalo's Dave Schultz the only person an audience can access easily.

A side note: Speaking of audiences, the one at Foxcatcher struggled mightily with the film's tone at times. There was a subgroup of folks at the screening who were determined that if a movie has Steve Carell wearing a big nose, it must be a comedy, or partly a comedy, or a satire, or something. They laughed at things that weren't at all funny, guffawed at the small moments of dark humor that creep into any drama with its humanity intact as if they were people getting pies in the face, and seemed to be poised for this all to become Fargoor To Die For or something along those lines, a cynical and comedic look at strange criminals.

It is not that; it is deeply and profoundly sad, both because of where the story is going and because of the powerfully human performances from all three of the men involved. Carell is committed to conveying the way du Pont is simultaneously a rich, controlling bully and a frightened, troubled, frustrated man whose interest in young wrestlers is driven by ego and (in a point made so fleetingly you could almost miss it) sex. Ruffalo and Tatum convey a lifetime of brotherly affection with very few words, telling you all you need to know in a quick bit of wrestling practice.

It's been clear for quite a while that Channing Tatum has the goods, but he's just wonderful here, tamping down the easy charisma he's displayed over and over in favor of directing most of his energy inward. Miller makes some very good choices in being unafraid to include long sequences in which Mark isn't doing a whole lot except sitting and thinking. It's a very good film, with very good performances, and we'll be talking about it again as awards season grinds on.

Speaking of awards season, Benedict Cumberbatch (the BBC's Sherlock Holmes, for those of you who don't have Tumblr) should be there as well for his performance as Alan Turing (another real person) in The ImitationGame.

Turing's story is a sad one: Britain's treatment of him was bad enough that in 2009, Prime Minister Gordon Brown publicly apologized for it and called it "appalling." He was referring to Turing's 1952 conviction for "gross indecency" — in other words, being gay — which led to chemical castration. But here, director Morton Tyldum and screenwriter Graham Moore, working from a book by Andrew Hodges, are concerned with an earlier chapter: Turing's codebreaking work during World War II.

Turing, a brilliant mathematician, joins a highly secret project to break the Enigma machine, which Germany is using to encrypt all its communications. British intelligence is convinced that breaking Enigma will win the war. So Turing and a group of compatriots, played by some fine actors like Matthew Goode and Downton Abbey's Allen Leech, get to work. There's one woman in the group, played by Keira Knightley, whose participation must be hidden from her parents lest they learn the scandalous truth of how intelligent she is. (Knightley doesn't have a huge amount to do that's all that challenging until late in the film, but when she gets to her final scene, she is excellent, as strong as I've seen her.)

A good chunk of The Imitation Game is a "one genius against the world" movie, as Turing struggles to get anyone to believe him that to defeat a machine, it will take another machine, not just people working daily to try to break the code before it changes again. It's got a strain of spy movie, of the satisfaction of solving a puzzle.

But at the center of the film is Cumberbatch's resonant performance as Turing. The film makes a good choice, I think, by focusing on Turing's work during the war, because seeing his genius, and seeing his contribution to the war effort, is what makes the later brutal treatment he received so much more shocking. Explaining how committed Turing was to saving lives by ending the war makes his later arrest seem impossibly petty, even more than it otherwise would be.

It is not to suggest that the mistreatment of gay people is only bad if they are war heroes, but the ironies of this story, buoyed by how appealing and genuine and sometimes funny Cumberbatch's performance is, come through loud and clear. This is how firm was the commitment to this policy: even the most brilliant of men, who had given the most to Britain, could be made to suffer.

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