Battle of the Sexes is a simple and romanticized tale of athletics, man and woman.
For all the bluster surrounding 1973’s sensationalist sporting event billed as the title’s battle of the sexes, which was a running media theme in the 1970s, before feminism dominated the culture, this small, character-driven film dramatizes at its best that the pursuit of excellence is liberating. Beyond that, with blurred images and the sound of a tennis racquet hitting a tennis ball to serve as the start of Fox Searchlight’s best movie since 12 Years a Slave, it’s a cultural snapshot, too, signalling substitution of personality cult for hero worship. No need to tell you how that part ended up.
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All of it’s well done, except for a few bad choices. As ex-Wimbledon champ Bobby Riggs, heavily sideburned Steve Carell (Little Miss Sunshine, Hope Springs, Dan in Real Life, Foxcatcher, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone) shines. And, as tennis champ Billie Jean King, minus the mullet, Emma Stone (La La Land, Aloha, The Amazing Spider-Man) does, too. Though Stone’s excellent depiction of King dominates at the expense of Carell’s excellent depiction of Riggs, and the imbalance minimizes Battle of the Sexes, the full measure of man and woman as athlete emerges.
The upshot is that Riggs, a 55-year-old former tennis champ, the world’s top men’s tennis player in the 1940s, is a gambling addict who’s more or less relegated to drudgery at his wife’s (Elisabeth Shue) discretion. So, he decides to cash in his winnings and trade on the trending women’s tennis. Riggs is seen as a hustler, though he is also father to a young son with whom he plays and to an older son who’s grown weary of his schemes. The showdown, made possible when Riggs cajoles, challenges and defeats a conservative women’s tennis player (Jessica McNamee as Margaret Court), is a chance at redemption. Battle of the Sexes would have been stronger with more scenes with Riggs, especially in close-up during the title’s match in Houston’s Astrodome. Carell does what he can with unequal screen time as a sexist challenger old enough to be King’s father, a fact which is downplayed.
Instead, with Alan Cumming in a great performance as an effeminate fashion designer who knows Billie Jean’s gay before she admits it to herself, Battle of the Sexes plays up King’s lesbianism. Peppered with clips of Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards in her popular, self-named situation comedy and lounging with Southern California’s easygoing ethos tuned to early Seventies’ Elton John, in comes a groupie-like hairdresser named Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough). As single-minded Marilyn closes in on the single-minded athlete, she teases and tells her to “just drive”.
King’s emerging sexuality is central to the plot’s 1970s’ liberation theme.
Sarah Silverman is slightly less grating than usual as a tennis hustler, too. Though her hustler is supposed to be arch, intentionally or not, Silverman’s Gladys is as exploitative of women’s players as the clubby men, if not more so because Gladys acts like she’s a women’s advocate. As Silverman’s character tells one female athlete: “I own you.”
Bill Pullman plays the villain, a league official who rejects King’s demand for equal pay and, though Riggs is underdeveloped, Stone’s studied, natural portrayal of trailblazing Billie Jean King, whose athletic achievements if not ability are also somewhat understated, gives the oncoming contest more of a matter-of-factness that works to the story’s advantage. As Riggs faces the reality of his overhyped challenge, and King glows in her newfound sexuality, feeling both contrite about cheating on her husband (Austin Stowell) and herself with an air of Elvis, the ’73 match watched by millions plays as one man’s self-delusion and one woman’s pivotal assertion of her own power as producer.
With Silverman’s gray-streaked Gladys, Riseborough’s ingratiating Marilyn, Stone’s hardcore athlete and Riggs basking in one final spotlight, with Howard Cosell foreshadowing an unfortunate age of captive TV masses hypnotized by Simpson, Kardashian and Trump, the audience is left to ponder who’s hustling whom and to what end. End titles omit certain facts, including King’s denial of her long affair with Marilyn, who sued for palimony when she was turned out, lost her case and may have in some sense been wronged. Battle of the Sexes depicts the pressure, release and glory of what it means — and what it costs — to be the best.
In this sense, Battle of the Sexes, written by Simon Beaufoy (127 Hours, Slumdog Millionaire, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) and directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (Little Miss Sunshine), evokes 2015’s best picture, Steve Jobs. Though not as thoughtful, rounded and rich, it also revels in being about ambition, ability and competing to be the best.
I hadn’t been to Dodger Stadium for years when I decided to watch a baseball game during daytime like I did when I was a kid.
Having childhood memories of watching men play ball from the bleachers at Wrigley Field and with my best friend at Comiskey Park in Chicago, I first came to the home of the legendary Los Angeles Dodgers with high expectations long ago with my friend Randy, who now runs a baseball academy.
I was not disappointed. The place, which opened for business on April 10, 1962, had become less than ideal, however, under previous ownership. Though I live and work close to Dodger Stadium (and I’ve covered sports, including baseball, for newspapers), I hadn’t attended a Dodger game since before I created this blog.
Seeing this summer’s games at Dodger Stadium brings back the joy of attending a baseball game. Los Angeles is the second largest city in America and LA’s Southern California ethos is distinctly American. But the challenge of modern living here is the same as anywhere in the deteriorating United States. Anything run by the government—hospitals, schools, roads—is a bureaucratic mess. This fact only makes a day at Dodger Stadium more of a marvel.
While I’m sorry to say that the ballpark was built after LA’s government demanded that Brooklyn Dodgers’ owner Walter O’Malley grant the deed to LA’s Wrigley Field in order to move the team to Los Angeles—and Los Angeles violated property rights, invoking eminent domain, to build it—Dodger Stadium remains an outstanding achievement.
Designed, engineered and constructed with tiered levels and entrances and convenient parking for each area, it’s easily accessible, so I choose to drive, park and walk. It is better to arrive early for a chance to explore the clubs, bars, grills, shops, playgrounds and picture spots. Nestled in the hills of northeast LA, Dodger Stadium affords sweeping views. A seat in the upper reserve section puts the Hollywood sign in plain view. Sights of LA’s skyline, hillsides, suburbs, palm trees and surrounding mountain ranges are all included in the price of admission and the sight lines of the playing field are fine. There really isn’t a bad view of the field, though the creep of sponsor signage is obstructive, especially in right field.
Buying tickets online is relatively painless and the admission process is simple. After a security check, show your smart phone ticket and parking pass or print them and follow the signs to your seat. After a safety announcement, ceremonial balls, pitches and the national anthem, and broadcaster Vin Scully’s context-setting pre-game clip, the Dodgers and opponents take the field. Before the game’s over, whenever that happens, visitors are treated to songs (Rodgers’ & Hammerstein’s “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” from Oklahoma!, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”), short promotions, occasional gifts and gambling, cheers, replays on ballpark monitors everywhere and the seventh inning stretch. Alcohol is served for a limited time during the game. Concession prices are inflated, of course, though guests can bring regular sized bottled water, snacks and backpacks. Making a video of the game violates team rules and fans can visit Dodgers.com for details and information on tours, etc. If you don’t want to eat Dodger Dogs ($6), healthy food pretty much means eating a salad (they’re good).
The Los Angeles Dodgers are rightly focused on athletic improvement (and taking care of Corey Seaver after he was beaned in the right wrist during yesterday’s game against the Phillies) but, judging by my recent game attendance, the stadium meets the ownership’s goal of restoring a safe, family-friendly spectator sports experience. From upper decks to club, premium and box seating, Dodger Stadium offers a terrific game day of baseball. With driving and exclusive Uber deal options, as well as shuttle bus and bicycling accommodations, transportation is relatively accessible. Seats are comfortable, restrooms are spotless, ushers are helpful and everyone is excited to be there.
The reason: to cheer for men of ability to play this wonderful sport with its sense of being suspended in time—and to watch LA’s Major League baseball team play to win. This season, the Dodgers have been in and out of first place and, from group gatherings of co-workers and families to school field trip students, celebrity guests and honored war veterans, the range of spectators primarily come for the grace, thrill and playfulness of the game.
Big screens show player statistics, trivia games, kiss and tot camera shots, welcome historical clips of Dodgers’ numbers 55 (Orel Hershiser), 42 (Jackie Robinson) and six (Steve Garvey) and, of course, those sharp, pre-game roundups courtesy of reporter Vin Scully in his final broadcasting season. Dodgers’ pride shows, from attentive custodians and parking attendants to vendors, cashiers and on-site Los Angeles Policemen. They make the 56,000-seat Dodger Stadium, the nation’s first privately financed ballpark since Yankee Stadium in 1923, a relaxed, friendly and rational refuge from modern madness.
As with any great American city’s baseball team, Dodger fans make attending baseball at the stadium a unique experience. My favorite part of seeing the Dodgers compete at Dodger Stadium, besides getting seriously if temporarily away from the egalitarian rot wasting the world, is being among decent, hardworking and happy Southern Californians who cheer for the Dodgers to win. Baseball is still the great American sport. LA’s renewed Dodger Stadium is once again one of the best places to watch men play ball.
Muhammad Ali, who called himself The Greatest, is gone. He was 74 years old.
The Kentucky-born boxer who became a world champion told his story in 1977’s The Greatest co-starring Ali and Ernest Borgnine as his trainer. The film originated “The Greatest Love of All”, the egoistic anthem later made famous by the late Whitney Houston.
Ali’s life was exceptional for his arrogant expression of egoism rooted in superior athletic achievement. I think Ali’s life is likely to be distorted and misunderstood for many complicated reasons, stemming from the times in which he died, this season in which a con man, the fraud who is Donald Trump, claims to be the best and isn’t. Muhammad Ali, whatever else his flaws, claimed to be the best and, in fact, he was.
Ali’s pride in his own ability, not to mention his poetic and often profound musings, commentaries and thoughts, was larger than life.
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He was a poor boy in Louisville, Kentucky, encouraged by a policeman to channel his rage against injustice into training as a boxer, which he did. Soon, Ali, originally named for his father (who was named for an abolitionist) and known then as Cassius Clay, won the Gold Medal at Rome’s 1960 Summer Olympics, appeared in Rod Serling’s Requiem for a Heavyweight with Anthony Quinn and upset the world’s heavyweight champion. He was then mentored by Malcolm X and joined the Nation of Islam, adopting the new name and seeking his own set of beliefs, a practice he never let go. He kept winning—Ali lost five bouts—and thinking for himself. He sometimes did so by race-baiting, bluster and dubious tactics.
He eventually left the Nation of Islam and mellowed his anti-white views and practiced his religion in private but not without first citing his personal beliefs as a conscientious objector to being drafted by the state into the Vietnam War. Ali was arrested, lost three years of prime competition due to persecution by the United States government and, long before Apple‘s Tim Cook, he fought a Democrat-controlled Department of Justice and later won in the U.S. Supreme Court. The damage to his career, however, had been done.
Yet Ali had influenced the nation, which turned against the Vietnam War, which was never declared and never won, and the military draft, which was abolished by President Nixon. By the time Muhammad Ali triumphed the last time as world champ, having defeated great boxers such as George Foreman and Joe Frazier and Leon Spinks, Ali had inspired Sylvester Stallone to make Rocky. Future athletes, such as Oscar De La Hoya, would invoke selfishness, too. According to Objectivist scholar Harry Binswanger in 100 Voices, Ayn Rand wanted Ali to play a role in an adaptation of her novel Atlas Shrugged.
If you think about it, it’s not difficult to see why. Amid today’s numerously preached and accepted contradictions and confusions, with scoreless sports games and entrenched egalitarianism, Muhammad Ali stood out as one—against the mob, the intellectuals and the state—proudly proclaiming his own excellence. He was arguably often tactless and vulgar, sometimes animated or even cartoonish and occasionally his means and ends were in legitimate dispute. But, in asserting with pride his own superior ability, Muhammad Ali was never wrong. Unlike today’s frauds, he dared his detractors to check the record. Ali earned his poetic and prideful proclamations.
It turns out that Ali, who was afflicted with Parkinson’s disease, paid a high price for his fierce and determined, possibly overlong and overzealous, competition. But Muhammad Ali was right. He was, in fact, the greatest. As the song from his movie says, “learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.”
This is fundamentally true. As the nation once in turmoil during Ali’s blustery, arrogant and triumphant youth goes into a violent new era ominously threatened by a blustery, vacant and bankrupt power-luster who would be president, Ali leaves a magnificent legacy which calls upon Americans to differentiate between the proud man whose pride is based in reality and the loud man whose bullying and boasting spews from raw, unchecked emotions.
Ali once said: “It’s not bragging if you can back it up.” Repeatedly, consistently, he did. This is what makes a man great. This—authentic self-esteem realized by human action—is what makes Muhammad Ali a great man.
Pictures of man in motion, discipline and hero worship lift Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky to fulfillment of its theme. Screened at Sid Grauman’s Chinese Theater for a 40th anniversary showing featuring an interview with co-star Talia Shire (read my thoughts on the interview after this review) at the TCM Classic Film Festival 2016 on Hollywood Boulevard, Rocky inspires the audience. The 1976 motion picture is intimate, like 1955’s Marty with Ernest Borgnine, small and naturalistic, not romanticist in the highest sense. Yet Mr. Stallone’s low budget, independent-type United Artists movie, like 1993’s Rudy with Sean Astin, depicts with brains and vigor a mythical figure: the self-made sportsman.
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Having never seen Rocky, or its sequels, I was well aware of its reputation, lines and movie star. TCM’s guide, too, describes it as a boxing movie, which doesn’t capture its essence. “Yo, Adrian” came to be mocked for some reason I never understood. So did Rocky‘s success; the character’s, the movie’s and the film series’. When Sylvester Stallone was talked up for a supporting actor Oscar this year, I correctly guessed that he would not win, though I knew that Rocky is the role for which the movie star staked his career and fortune.
When Rocky appeared on TCM’s schedule, I looked forward to finally seeing this seminal movie 40 years after it was made. Now that I’ve seen it, a lot of the hype and backlash makes sense. Though it’s a sports movie, Rocky’s more like a Western in some ways; the hero is an individualist who takes ownership of his domain. He is solitary. He has no family. Rocky rides alone. In this sense, Rocky is perfect for 1976, when feminism began to erode man-woman relationships, leading to emasculation of the American male. Rocky acts like a cowboy—like an American—like a man. Rocky doesn’t choose someone conventional. He picks his partner based on what he sees in her. He wants her. He courts her, he asks for her and he earns, and takes, her. So I see now that reducing their relationship to “Yo, Adrian” is a smear against man as a heroic being.
I also see now that Rocky, directed by John Avildsen, is a great Philadelphia movie, like 1993’s Philadelphia and 1940’s The Philadelphia Story, and it’s not just about the scenery and the steps. More on that later.
Philadelphia’s cold, gritty grayness serves as the wet, dark depth from which Rocky Balboa (Mr. Stallone, magnificent in every scene) rises. In the film’s first part, Rocky faces reality. At 30 years old, with bulging muscles from boxing, sad, brown eyes and a habit of alcohol and cigarettes to ease his pain and possibly his guilt from working as a mobster, he’s on his way to becoming a thug and he knows it. Coming home to a poster of his hero, legendary boxer Rocky Marciano, Rocky Balboa looks at an old photo of himself as a boy, gazes into the mirror and ponders whether he is, as sour fans call him after an opening bout, a “bum.”
It’s a legitimate concern. But there’s evidence to the contrary, too. Besides sneaking an occasional smoke, nursing an occasional drink, losing an occasional match, there’s something else about Rocky, who walks the streets at night, knows everybody in the neighborhood, goes easy on his shakedown targets and has a fondness for turtles, goldfish and puppies. He’s a hero worshipper, with Marciano’s chiseled body as the god of Rocky’s home—as against the portrait of Jesus Christ hanging at the gym—he’s kind and intelligent, which everyone around seems to sense, know and like about him, and, deep down, Rocky Balboa takes pride in himself.
It’s in his walk, when he struts around dark corners, greeting neighbors. It’s in his trade, when he enters a pet shop and flirts with the cashier, in whom he sees a quality he values. It’s in his talk, when he singles out a tough girl and delivers a stern lesson in the importance of earning one’s reputation—Rocky‘s first crucial transition to an extraordinary tale of a self-made man. Rocky walks the girl around the ‘hood, taking the wayward youth on a journey back home, where she thanks him, having been unhinged from clannishness and at least for now restored to a natural, decent state of being an individual who’s capable of standing alone.
This is a small scene, seemingly innocuous, but it marks a critical moment of the man’s self-awareness. It’s as if Rocky realizes in giving that speech that he’s infected with the mind-body dichotomy, not practicing in reality what he preaches in theory, living by example to the opposite of what he instructs the street kid. By now, the audience knows that Rocky likes being alive—he teems with life and, even when he’s down, it’s because he’s sad about something unfulfilled, not in pity for himself—and his love for life is ready to be (re)born. The audience—and this is why the movie earned 1976’s top spot and won Best Picture—is in on the heroism; a picture of man, machine and bridge, carrying a train, car and athlete all in forward motion, gets it going. So, too, does Bill Conti’s epic score.
Soon, the inner conflict gets an outer conflict to match, with world heavyweight boxing champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) looking for a new means to profit from his work. As Rocky is inwardly American, Creed is outwardly American, exploiting the Uncle Sam persona, the nation’s Bicentennial, even General Washington’s crossing the Delaware River, shamelessly engaging in greedy promotionalism and inviting Rocky Balboa to box for the championship title as a uniquely American match. Equally greedy for an opportunity to prove himself in the arena, Rocky accepts.
But, knowing he’s a man not a boy and beginning his realignment, Rocky persuades the pet shop cashier, whose name is Adrian (Talia Shire), to date, yielding another interesting character contrast. As Rocky has grown his body to the exclusion of developing his mind, Adrian has clearly done the opposite. Both are variations on the mind-body dichotomy; each embodies the disowned self—which both through mutual commitment choose to reclaim. He takes her ice skating, where she first sees him fail but not before she sees him try. The later scene in which he reaches up while she visits his home for the first time, taunting and tempting her with his sexuality, seals their gaps. This causes a problem for Rocky’s pal and Adrian’s brother/paternal figure Paulie (Burt Young), who faces his own transformation, and it’s game on.
Enter the old man, in this case a 76-year-old trainer named Mickey Goldmill played by the late Burgess Meredith, who, in one scene in which he pleads for the job and seeks to redeem himself for an earlier rejection of Rocky, masterfully begins the retraining even as he walks away. This is a beautifully shot scene in which both men accept reality, come to terms and trade. They do so in a handshake—not a fistbump—while the train keeps moving on. Training, too, keeps moving, as Rocky downs raw eggs for protein to promote muscle growth.
As he does, and this is why the remarkable Rocky is not really about boxing, Rocky gets better, Adrian gets better, life improves and the world opens. As Rocky trains, jogs, conditions, sweats and expends effort, the neighborhood literally comes to life, with Conti’s theme piping through as fires burn bright. Whomever wins, it’s dawn in America, at least in America’s first capital, as Rocky prepares to box Apollo. In fact, to paraphrase Vince Lombardi, it’s wanting to win that matters. In this sense, Rocky—who looks in the mirror and conducts one more essential reality check before the bout, explicitly naming terms to himself—wins by going the distance, letting himself learn by letting go of what he can’t control that remaking his life for his own sake is the highest reward.
By the end, he is bloody but unbowed, as William Ernest Henley wrote, and he is triumphant by thinking and acting on principle—observe his breakdown of the concept southpaw as proof that he grasps that his mind and body are one—and, come what may, there is his woman, wearing red in another key scene and similarly remade and rejuvenated. “Adrian!!” is both his final and first call in triumph.
Rocky goes out on top.
Speaking at Grauman’s Chinese Theater on April 30, 2016 at TCM Classic Film Festival 2016, actress Talia Shire (The Godfather), who played Adrian in director John Avildsen’s Rocky, insistently and rightly gave full credit to Hollywood’s unsung Sylvester Stallone.
Shire, whose brother and Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola was honored at the festival with a handprint ceremony in the historic theater’s forecourt, repeated the legend of Mr. Stallone’s achievement: that Sylvester Stallone declined offers for his script, did not let his property go, and insisted that producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff cast him in the title role. Rocky‘s location shots were illegally directed without government permission, as is widely known, and the movie went on to win Oscar’s Best Picture and led to six sequels, including last year’s Creed, in which Mr. Stallone reprised his Rocky role.
Talia Shire recalled that Burgess Meredith set a good example for the cast and crew and was “full of creative joy.” Sylvester Stallone was, she said, “larger than life.” She added with reverence that he was “very sensitive” and was single-minded in his conviction that “something extraordinary was being made”.
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 Pittsburghand 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.
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.