Joshua Reviews Steve James’ Head Games [Theatrical Review]

Among all the topics that affect the world of sports; from doping to off the field issues athletes run into, there is not a single more hot button issue today than that of concussions and overall head trauma that is suffered by athletes ranging from NFL linebackers to elementary female soccer players. Every sport, every player, no matter the race, creed, gender or any other qualifier is consistently at risk for trauma to the head, be it a full-blown knock out or an ‘undiagnosed’ concussion. However, when you have millions, if not billions and likely trillions of dollars on athletes, leagues and entire sports, some people automatically become less willing to take out the highest of profile players, particularly in professional sports, where the big names draw the big bucks.

That’s where a documentary filmmaker like Steve James comes in.

The Hoop Dreams helmer is back with his follow-up to last year’s masterpiece The Interrupters with an adaptation, of sorts, of the eye-opening book Head Games and while it doesn’t carry the emotional wallop packed Dreams nor the broad human narrative of Interrupters, Games is every bit as good as any documentary 2012 has to offer, and easily one of the most important sports documentaries of the past few years.

Based on a book penned by Christopher Nowinski, James’documentary begins its life as what appears to be a chronicle of a former college football stud-turned-pro wrestler’s tale of jumping from one sport to another, only to have his life turned upside down from head trauma suffered during a tag-team match during an episode of WWE’s Monday Night Raw. However, as the film’s 90-plus minute runtime goes on one discovers that it becomes not only the story of one man’s crusade to enlighten a jaded sports world about its inherent cranial dangers, but also the story of a generation of athletes whose injuries may be repeated by the next if their elders stay as stagnant about the topic as they have.   While some players are getting the message (two high profiled NFL players recently retired because of dangers that could come later in their career), leagues are steering clear of enforcing any major changes, but this film aims to change the minds of those playing or watching their children play. It’s not a story of why one shouldn’t play, it’s a story of what may very well happen if one does, which itself may very well be the best thing one can state about the piece.

Head Games is just about as expansive a sports documentary can get. Touching on sports ranging from soccer to professional wrestling, from pro football to rocket football played by elementary students, the film’s single greatest attribute is its ability to make its topic at had seem as though it has the highest stakes one could imagine. With the probability of having some sort of trauma caused to one’s head playing these respective sports at the highest of high rates, and with those rates growing even higher as the athletes playing become bigger, faster and stronger the film looks at not only the science behind these injuries, but the fact that nothing is being done to stop them.

Similar conceptually to the bureaucratic misguiding behind the still-crippling economic crisis that faces this country, and much of the world, the film shines its light directly upon leagues around the country, even down to school physicians and trainers, who are trying anything and everything to either allow athletes to play through these injuries or are simply to ignorant to believe that they matter. The film itself is standard documentary fair, featuring massively insightful interviews with athletes, past, present and future, doctors and even Bob Costas, all giving deep and thought-provoking insight into this issue. Nowinski makes for one hell of a centerpiece, a man whose aspirations drove him from football to pro-wrestling, only to have his entire life changed, and then finding himself the author of sports world-shattering Head Games, something that is still sending ripples throughout athletics. Toss in some out-of-character flights of fancy from director Steve James (be it something like a rotoscope-esque football sequence or verite-style gym sequences), and you have a film that is both not quite like anything James has truly done lately and also something right in the middle of his strike zone.

Lacking the emotional breadth of Hoop Dreams or the humanistic singularity of Interrupters, Head Games is a breathtaking sports documentary looking into the single most important topic in that realm. Featuring eye-opening interviews with luminaries in every aspect of this subject, Head Games is a broad and all-encompassing documentary that will force athletes, and yes even parents of them, to look inward, and ask themselves if the risk is truly worth the reward.

And as far as risk goes, this film is worth every second, and then some.

Joshua Brunsting

Josh is a critic, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, a wrestling nerd, a hip-hop head, a father, a cinephile and a man looking to make his stamp on the world, one word at a time.