Banging your head is common in sports. The skull is basically used as a missile in football. Heading the ball is a key move in soccer. And what would hockey be without checking and the odd fistfight? Yet as New York Times journalist Alan Schwarz deadpans in Steve James's latest documentary, "Head Games," "It's been known for a long time that banging your head over and over and over again can be a bad thing." That bad thing is called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). At one point in the movie, Ann McKee, a researcher for the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy who spends much of her day slicing through brains with a bread knife, shows a slide of an affected brain from a deceased NFL player. Instead of a healthy creamy white on the inside, the organ is brown and spotted, as if it had been used as an ashtray. The afflicted are prone to memory loss, violent behavior, and depression. And there's growing evidence that the disease might not affect just aging pugilists but possibly teenage or even younger athletes.
It's a weighty, amorphous subject that at first blush doesn't lend itself to easy translation to the movies. Fortunately, at the center of the debate is Chris Nowinski, the sort of person that documentary filmmakers dream about. Not only is he fresh-faced and charismatic, but he has a great backstory. After playing defensive tackle for Harvard, Nowinski became WWE's first Ivy League-educated professional wrestler. He soon became a fixture as a villainous snob who would sneer at the audience, "I am a Harvard graduate" to a hail of boos. Then one day in 2003, he was slammed to the floor one too many times. He found himself disoriented and confused. "I forgot why I was in the ring," he tells the camera. Nowinski was severely concussed. He suffered from nausea and headaches for months. And it was that incident that turned the brainy wrestler into a leader in the debate on the lasting problems with multiple concussions. In one riveting scene, Nowinski talks over the phone with the bewildered widow of a boxer, a loving family man who spiraled into depression and then suddenly, violently committed suicide. The news that her husband had indeed suffered from CTE gave her some solace.
The information in the movie is certainly compelling. I, for one, will probably never play contact football again, but then, as an asthmatic film geek born during the Nixon administration, that wasn't very likely to begin with. "Head Games," however, never quite manages to soar the way Steve James's previous docs had, especially his 1994 masterpiece "Hoop Dreams." That movie brilliantly used basketball as a focus for a portrait of an entire society in much the same way that the HBO series "The Wire" used the drug war to do the same. This movie keeps its focus narrow, and as a result feels less compelling.
[Related: Indie Roundup: 'Sleepwalk With Me']
At the end of "Head Games," we're left with an impossible question: What now? The brain is a much more fragile organ than we previously thought. Even one concussion, we learn, is too much. The obvious, if drastic, solution is to stop playing every sport that's not golf, badminton, or curling. It feels unpalatably extreme. When the filmmaker poses the question to some of the movie's most ardent critics of the NFL, their responses are conflicted. They're disturbed by the ramifications of their data, but they also love football.
See the trailer for 'Head Games':