Directed by Steve James. STC. 95 min. Opens Sept. 21 at the Royal.
“What happens on Sunday happens on Friday,” says a concerned talking head in Steve James’ new documentary, Head Games. He’s referring to the fact that peewee football players tend to imitate the smash-mouth moves they see being executed by their NFL idols in an attempt to eventually grow up to be just like them. Which is to say that they’re inviting into their lives the strong possibility of serious brain injury.
Titled after and inspired by a book by ex–football star and pro wrestler Christopher Nowinski—whose own tale of a brutal, life-altering concussion opens and anchors the film—Head Games probes and critiques the American obsession with violent sports. Nowinski was a stellar athlete who also happened to be extremely bright (his WWE character was named “Mr. Harvard”), but he got out early after taking a vicious shot to the head and has since turned his efforts towards trying to make people aware of the consequences of so many head-on collisions. As the film goes on, he’s joined by a number of doctors, commentators, and fellow sportsmen and women who echo his sentiments.
Since his breakthrough doc, Hoop Dreams, James has been perhaps the most astute documentarian when it comes to chronicling the intersections between pro sports and his country’s larger consciousness. But Head Games is more conventional: It’s a polemic that drives towards a point rather than a truly compelling piece of individual or social portraiture. Its steady, methodical style, however, does justice to its overall aim, which is to touch a nerve that has been desensitized by the media’s valorization of athletes as tough guys.