Head Games (Steve James, 2012)

What makes Steve James one of the most effective contemporary documentarians is his ability take his subject matter and view it through both a macro and micro lens. With films like Hoop Dreams, Stevie, and most recently The Interrupters, James mined through personal narrative to speak about the world at large. With his most recent effort though, Head Games, he casts a very wide net in his analysis on the sobering reality of combat sports and the residual brain damage that accrues over time. But even as he undertakes such a broad subject that takes the audience from the largest football stadiums to sterile offices to a little-league football game, James never loses sight of the intrinsic human element that motivates his cause.

Christopher Nowinski, a former professional wrestler and Ivy League football player, frames the narrative as an epidemic where athletes suffer from dilapidating neurological injuries as a result of concussions. Perhaps there’s an element of obviousness in the neurological injuries that can plague athletes, but Nowinski, along with a slew of neurologists, extend their argument scientifically without succumbing to overwhelming complexity. As James and Nowinski interview professionals, the data and subsequent analysis of the brain is presented in a clear and effective manner. While Nowinski frames the argument medically, James balances the proceedings with his intrinsic human tendencies, opting to study urban settings along with the social and cultural implications of contact sports. The balance that James adopts is remarkably effective in presenting his material as both a call to action and a grounded human story.

The call to action that James and Nowinski frame is one that not just imposes stricter safety guidelines on contact sports, but for individuals to examine what happens in its preliminary stages. The tenacity and ferocity seen on the national level is mimicked in high schools and colleges. Perhaps most distressing, and one of the recurring narrative elements that James employs, is seeing small children, no older than ten, playing football with the same bravado that is seen on Monday Night Football.

If there’s uncertainty in James’ filmmaking, it comes largely from what he wants his films to do long-term. One can argue that football has solidified its position as the American pastime, as its broad appeal and rating success indicate that it has eclipsed virtually every other sport in the states. The data and testimonies on display in Head Games suggest that the only way to do away with the intense neurological damage is to do away with the sport entirely. But can our society truly do away with the sport entirely? Having attended a screening of Head Games with Steve James in attendance, he presents the idea of subverting a contact sport like football – could the cultural significance of football really degrade to that of something like boxing? It’s an interesting idea, particularly given the growing awareness of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, but it’s not something I’m willing to embrace at this point as a potential reality. 

Rating: 7/10