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Movie Review: Concussion

How the mind works, recalls and knows is the main theme of the alternately disturbing and stimulating Concussion starring Will Smith as the doctor who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the deadly condition caused by playing football. Sony‘s movie, which tries to bundle too much into the story, is imperfect. But it absorbingly depicts one man’s singular quest for knowledge and judgments which arguably ought to end football.

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Concussion is anti-football strictly as facts allow. Smith’s Dr. Omalu, a pathologist in Pittsburgh, the industrial American city of champions in business, sports and medicine, eventually acknowledges what others regard as the beauty, grace and power of pigskin’s professional sport. But the film is about the effects of football, not an examination of what drives everyone to it.

The field play happens in game clips, conveying an essence of its brutal competition. But the characters play in Salvatore Totino’s gleaming photography, which captures Pittsburgh’s arenas, bridges, buildings, inclines and airplanes in the glory of glass and steel against green hills and gray skies.

Concussion‘s mind versus muscle clash in this ideal setting portrays a uniquely American contest—pitting the man who thinks against the man who refuses to think. Watching it is as gripping as watching a well done scoring drive.

In Will Smith’s characterization of coroner’s office neuropathologist Dr. Omalu, with fine supporting performances from Alec Baldwin and Albert Brooks, Concussion delivers what one character rightly calls “an American hero” who at his core seeks to end the killing of an innocent man. He is practicably spiritual in an almost Greek sense, though he goes to church, hangs crosses and speaks of God. This self-made African doctor who earned both a master’s degree and a medical degree in addition to getting his MBA from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University is devoted to his chosen profession and reverential about practicing medicine in (pre-ObamaCare) America, which he tells another immigrant is the only nation where one is free to be the best.

Concussion‘s prolonged set-up begins with a patient zero, Pittsburgh Steelers‘ center Mike Webster (David Morse) the first of many tortured, diseased football players who are doomed to die from complications related to CTE, most by suicide. This figures uncomfortably and prominently into the forensics-driven plot, which dips and curves like the roads in Pittsburgh’s hills. When Omalu’s mentor, Cyril Wecht (Brooks in another excellent turn), backs Omalu’s investigation with the line that he never leaves a lead alone, adding that “that’s why people hate me”, it is both a piece of advice and a warning. Idiosyncratic Dr. Wecht encourages idiosyncratic Dr. Omalu to find romance, which blooms when a nurse (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) appears at church.

The good doctor embarks on the noble inquiry, based on a proprietary theory with the blessing of the seasoned sponsor, followed by a first dance and a first kiss in the doctor’s steady and messy pursuit of happiness. As he does, of course, having persuaded the best medical minds in Pittsburgh and that’s saying something, he faces the obstacle that Americans both fixate on and have faith in: football. The object of worship’s receptacle: the cartel—or is it monopoly—known as the National Football League (NFL). What Concussion does not show is the NFL’s affiliation with the shady sports press and other various conflicts of interest, but at least Concussion shows fans’ mindless complicity in the widely held gladiator spectacle—or is it slaughter—with pictures of people cheering as men pulverize one another. I don’t mean to sound sanctimonious. I used to do that, too.

Dr. Omalu, making his way to realizing the American Dream and blissfully single-minded about CTE after getting published and corroborating his theory to the point of missing that the Dream is barely alive, personifies that medicine is a serious, fact-based business which requires supreme autonomy—and, by contrast and implication, that football is the opposite. Players are used and discarded in a meat grinder that treats men as flesh made only of muscle, to hell with their minds. Dr. Omalu pushes on, explaining that man, unlike other animals, has no shock absorbers and cannot withstand the “unremitting storm of sub-concussive blows” without serious risk of injury.

Mike Webster received an estimated 70,000 of those blows. He ended up with the misery that’s peculiar to CTE. He was dead by the age of 50.

Concussion demands to know why. With writer and director Peter Landesman overusing closeups of eyes, heads and faces, this movie, which is based on a magazine article, expresses that to know is to live. The script and performances ardently add up to a powerful scene with Dr. Omalu standing before the players association as if he’s in a church—the church of pro football—experiencing something like a resurgence of man’s spirit. Concussion insists upon treating men as men and naming the consequences of either seeing the living as pawns in a game or as individuals with the right to life. None of this is obvious in the picture, which is neatly scored by James Newton Howard.

I grew up watching and playing football for fun and I was once a fan. I once waited for hours to meet the glorious Pittsburgh Steelers and get their autographs—I did and I’m glad I did—and I met the late Mike Webster and the late Dave Duerson (who is somewhat vilified here) and others depicted in Concussion. When chronic traumatic encephalopathy became known, the fun ended and I am no longer able to enjoy the sport. This was true long before this thoughtful movie was released. Despite having too much plot, religion and Sony’s requisite out of place product placement, Concussion does more than dramatize an argument against football. It dramatizes how to hold knowledge of existence—expressly for the advancement of man’s life on earth—above all fetishized and romanticized notions of sport, city and country. It never leaves facts alone. It asks the same of the audience.

President Carter on the Kiss Camera

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President Carter

When he was first elected president in 1976, the year of America’s bicentennial, Jimmy Carter was seen as a reaction to the downfall of disgraced President Richard Nixon; while Nixon was repressive and cagey, Carter was open and transparent. He walked during his inauguration, he let his child Amy into important meetings, he indulged his mother Miss Lillian and his brother Billy and he’s the first U.S. president to have talked to Playboy.

The peanut farmer, former naval officer and Georgia governor was also America’s first born-again Christian president and he ineffectually presided over a downturn in the economy and an attack on America by Iran. President Carter (1977-1981) struggled to regain his relaxed, jovial popularity as an outsider to Washington. But he never recovered. He was trounced by Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election. He has since been relatively unwelcome in his own party, the Democrats, relegated again to being the outsider and writing books when he’s not denouncing Israel or making a short statement about a certain policy, controversy or issue. As a former U.S. president, Carter’s been irrelevant for a long time.

This makes his recent appearance at a baseball game one of his best moments. As many readers know, 90-year-old President Carter of Plains, Georgia, disclosed last month that cancer has spread into his brain and liver. He’s being treated with drugs and radiation therapy and I wish him well. In the face of this grim diagnosis, he did something especially American for which I think he deserves credit: he took his wife Rosalynn to a game of the most distinctly American sport, baseball, and, when the “kiss camera” or kiss cam came to him, he smiled that famous grin and kissed Mrs. Carter. The kiss (watch the video clip here) was a simple gesture, and, whether it was planned or not, in both his and today’s cultural contexts, it is wonderfully American.

A kiss in the midst of adversity is a potentially powerful act, as I wrote about here, and cancer patient Jimmy Carter’s choice to take his wife to the ballgame and be as jovial and accessible as possible—with such a cheerful display of passion for his wife—is an example of good leadership. While other former presidents with shameful records, such as George H.W. Bush, underscore the difference between themselves and the American people they once pledged to serve, President Carter’s act of love, in a uniquely American setting with a uniquely American display of immodesty, ought to remind Americans of one of his best qualities—Jimmy Carter’s sense that being an American president means being cognizant, not contemptuous, of what it truly means to be among the American people.

An Act of Egoism

220px-Chris_Borland_2013_against_ASU_1An explicit act of egoism is rare in today’s culture. By my observation, most people begrudgingly or, worse, apologetically, act in selfishness when they do, even among those who claim that selfishness can be virtuous. As rare as egoism is, it’s even rarer to be publicly practiced among well-known people, and I can’t think of many who practice egoism on principle who work in sports.

This is what makes athlete Chris Borland, who quit playing professional sports this spring after one season with the San Francisco 49ers based upon his judgment that the risk of brain injury exceeds the rewards of playing pro football, a rare American hero. Borland, a skilled 24-year-old linebacker, retired after consulting with his ex-teammates, friends, family and concussion researchers and evaluating the facts about the relationship between playing football and the neurodegenerative disease chronic traumatic encephelopathy (CTE).

The young man quit with an explicit rejection of altruism—he said: “I’m not willing to sacrifice…”—in favor of being selfish, stating:  “I know this is right for me.”

As Borland told CBS News’ Face the Nation when asked if he had any remorse for his position:

Absolutely not. To play one year, it’s not a cash grab as I’ve been accused of. I’m paying back three-fourths of my signing bonus. I’m only taking the money I’ve earned. This to me is just about health and nothing else. I’ve never played the game for money or attention. I love football. I’ve had a blast and I don’t regret the last 10 years of my life at all. I’d do it over the exact same way. From here on I’m looking forward.”

Borland, who signed a four-year contract with the 49ers which included a $617,436 bonus, acted heroically for putting himself first, for doing so with remarkable poise and eloquence, and for refusing to seek the unearned. That he also chose to do so by speaking up in public and addressing the press to explain his reasons, while rejecting self-sacrifice, makes him a candidate for man of the year.

Though there are other sports heroes and athletes who have embraced egoism, such as Mario Lemieux, Oscar de la Hoya and Michael Jordan, today’s sports often mirror the bankrupt culture with scandals, corruption and thug worship. Mr. Borland offers an elegant, intelligent and heroic counterexample. In a culture in which athletes are urged to put themselves—body and mind—last, not first, Chris Borland’s egoism is truly exceptional.

Pro Hockey Scores for Egoism

NHL logoTo its eternal credit, the National Hockey League is reportedly holding off a commitment to send athletes to compete at the Olympics, which are being described by officials as “very likely” to be attacked by religious fundamentalists.

Good for the NHL, which should follow the example of Pittsburgh Penguins owner Mario Lemieux and go by reason and self-interest. Let others mindlessly march into a police state’s false sense of security. In a world in which innocent lives are constantly put at risk in the name of not offending Islam and entire government agencies are constructed to track, target and control innocent lives while appeasing those who initiate force against the West, the NHL is right to not follow the herd and put the athletes’ lives first. The last major sports event attacked by jihadists, the Boston Marathon, was another powerful example of the U.S. government’s failure to protect American lives.

After years of widespread, systematic violation of individual rights – heroically catalogued and disclosed by whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden – the American state did not stop the attack on Boston despite Obama’s claims that the state should be trusted to defend the nation. The Boston Marathon attack disproves (as do the attacks at Benghazi and Fort Hood) the government’s insistence that government-controlled life improves security. In fact, there is evidence that the government knew in advance of each planned attack mentioned here, including having specific knowledge of the Boston attackers’ ties to Islamic terrorism. Boston strong? Please. Boston busted.

This is why the NHL is right to question the safety of the Olympics. There is no reason to believe that athletes and their families are safe. There is every reason to believe an attack will occur and that the West will do nothing to protect lives and property. The police placed Boston under martial law and still came up short, leaving a private citizen to discover the cowering Islamic terrorist and only after he’d been allowed to kill his comrade before he could be caught.

Why should innocents pledge to be first to die because the West would rather move toward fascism than face the necessity of naming and eradicating the threat of Islamic fundamentalism? The NHL is acting as a true trade association and should be encouraged in its refusal to follow along. Whatever their final decision, the business of professional hockey has given its players, fans and the world an example in the ethics of egoism.

Movie Review: 42

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Jackie Robinson is the subject of the poorly named 42, an overly sentimental movie about how to change a culture one man at a time that can’t help but be powerful and moving. Unlike other fact-based historical films centering upon an individual, such as Good Night, and Good Luck and Schindler’s List, there is fundamental truth at the core of 42, that one should be judged on his character and rise or fall on his ability, and it helps that the writer and director of the thoughtful, old-fashioned, heartstrings sports movie is the same person. His name is Brian Helgeland (Man on Fire, Robin Hood) and he is white.

That a white artist is so moved to tell this tale of an American baseball player who broke the color barrier, led by a Bible-thumping sports businessman who simply wants to get into heaven (Harrison Ford) and that he tells it with honorable intentions and skill is a sign of how much has changed since the Dodgers first hired a black athlete to play ball. The writing is crisp, for the most part, with some outstanding lines that make you want to cheer and the leisurely plot moves along. The score by Mark Isham is too much and the cliches seem inevitable since we’ve seen this kind of movie many times and some inconsistencies – rows of little pig-tailed girls asking for a baseball player’s autograph in 1947 and Pittsburgh being the butt of jokes – are off the mark but 42 offers an important and uniquely American tale.

That’s why you shouldn’t expect the usual race-baiters (you know who they are) to praise this movie, unless they think they can gain from doing so. With an actor I’ve never heard of named Chadwick Boseman, who’s a dead ringer for the good-looking Jackie Robinson, with Nicole Beharie as his wife, playing talented Robinson as an intelligent, proud athlete who used both his charm and being underestimated to his advantage on and off the baseball diamond, 42 does right by Mr. Robinson. As with Walk the Line, Lincoln and other well-made biographically-themed pictures, (including The Iron Lady, about the late Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher), we don’t really get to know the subject in the deepest sense. Instead, we get a glimpse of his essential characteristics at particular points in time.

But it is a look at the whole man, from his rejection of a moral obligation to serve others – “we don’t owe the world a thing” – to his insistence on knowing why Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey, who recruited him to play baseball for Brooklyn, did so and what’s in it for him. In one of the best scenes, and contrary to sports and black stereotypes, Jackie Robinson is an equal to his wife during a scene in which he admits that a racist almost got the best of him and it is refreshing to see a hero with fallibility, not feet of clay. As we move from racist Florida and the South, which get off too easy as far as I’m concerned, to Philadelphia and southern Ohio, regions hardly known for racial tolerance, Jackie Robinson faces irrational ideas and actions from teammates, fans and other teams. Some of them change, some do not, and the young black couple from southern California – where the Dodgers play today – adjust to the new normal. Rickey, capably portrayed by Ford playing crusty to the hilt, guides Jackie Robinson and the ball club along the way, dodging Catholics, bureaucrats and others who stand in the way of justice and objectivity about what it means to play – and what it takes to win.

In fact, playing to win and make money is one of the better themes in 42, which unabashedly endorses money as the root of all good; money is neither black nor white, as one character says, it’s green. Though there’s not enough baseball in the sepia-toned film, which features too many characters tagging along, sports scenes and the plot’s pace feel a bit like a day at the ballpark. Time is suspended and winning is everything which, in this case, means winning men’s minds one by one, inning by inning, run by run. Evoking America’s racist past with key symbols, from buses, trains and fields to Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning towering in the background as a team struggles to unite, 42 cashes in its lessons about a great baseball player and honorable man who should be remembered for refusing to sit in the back of the bus – yes, Jackie Robinson did that, too – so he could be his best and play ball just like everyone else.