Parents could be making their kids wear helmets to the library by the conclusion of helmer Steve James’ science-and-sports docu “Head Games,” which scores solid hits on everyone from the NFL down to peewee hockey as it links contact sports, concussions and those calling for widespread reformation of the nation’s athletic philosophies and priorities. The PG-13 rating is a scandal, essentially discouraging the people most in need of the film’s information from getting it, but TV exposure will be the best bet anyway, unless sports-centric outlets grow allergic to a film that undermines their very existence.
One of the more fascinating aspects of a thoroughly entertaining movie is how incomprehensible James’ proposed changes are in a country where many would list their necessities as food, shelter and “Monday Night Football.” In one disturbing scene, Christopher Nowinski (ex-Harvard footballer, ex-WWE wrestler, author of “Head Games: Football’s Concussion Crisis” and one of the film’s principals) is confronted by a high-school athletic director more disturbed by Nowinski’s disclosure of negative information than by the fact that so many young athletes are incurring multiple concussions, which can lead to lasting brain damage, erratic behavior, depression and, in some cases, suicide. In another scene, a pediatrician is deeply embarrassed by having a debate with herself about how many concussions are acceptable for her young, hockey-playing son, when the answer, obviously, is none.
“Head Games” is strong on statistical evidence — pro football players are 19 times more likely to develop conditions like Alzheimer’s disease — and features a good deal of visible proof in addition to multiple clips of vicious head shots. Ann McKee, professor of neurology and pathology at Boston U. (the nerve center, so to speak, of concussion research), calmly dissects the brain of an athlete who died prematurely, showing the evidence of head injuries in the tissue.
But the strongest element in “Head Games” is probably the number of voices assembled, including Nowinski, McKee and New York Times sports reporter Alan Schwarz, who has written about the staggering statistics concerning health problems suffered by NFL vets. Another interviewee, former hockey player Keith Primeau, retired from the NHL after four concussions, now coaches kids’ hockey — with great care. His own son’s admission that he’s probably been concussed, and wouldn’t admit it lest he lose playing time, more or less sums up the film’s attitude about the playing-hurt ethos of sports in America.
James (“Hoop Dreams”) knows where to go for his information; he also knows the type of subject who works best in a film. Happily, in “Head Games,” these priorities coincide. All interviewees are passionate, likable, occasionally funny and not constrained by the talking-heads format, helping to bring to life what might have been a dry, numbers-driven subject.
Tech credits are topnotch, with a superlative look achieved by lensers Dana Kupper and Keith Walker; the manipulation of their imagery in post-production brings an appropriately dramatic effect to certain scenes.