by Irvin Muchnick
Sean Pamphilon, a one-time ESPN production assistant who has risen to the ranks of elite sports documentary filmmakers, now has produced the very best movie on the football concussion crisis, The United States of Football. Though not accessible everywhere, it has about as wide a release as possible for any nonfiction film not directed by Michael Moore. See http://theusof.com for theater locations. And whatever you do, go see USOF.
As someone who’s not paid well enough to hide his natural cantankerousness, I’ll be discussing below my disappointment that Pamphilon made the movie he could readily get lots of people to pay to watch, rather than the one I would have made were I as brilliant at this medium as he is. Read on for one person’s critique, but at the same time, pay no attention to the grump behind the screen.
I also am proud to call Sean a friend, so let’s get the narcissistic part of this review out of the way first.
For reasons that must have cost his poor parents thousands of dollars in fees to child psychologists, Pamphilon was bound and determined to include my voice in USOF. In order to fulfill that promise, he had to go out of his way to interview me at the end of a trip to the Bay Area to visit a dying relative. All kidding aside, I am grateful and humbled to be juxtaposed in this work with assorted journalistic betters in two spots.
One clip has me sourly pointing out that the National Football League’s underwriting of federal research on traumatic brain injury is equivalent to the Tobacco Institute’s drafting of a report by the surgeon general.
In the other one, I verbally bodyslam Dr. Joe “ImPACT” Maroon of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the NFL coterie of book-cooking scientific researchers … and, of course, World Wrestling Entertainment.
(Not for the first time, I’m struck by how the real WWE reveals more than the fake NFL about the way the world works. USOF also has on camera Pittsburgh radio commentator Mark Madden, who boasts wrestling industry broadcast roots — along with, obviously, Chris Nowinski, the Harvard football player-turned WWE performer whose investigations into his own bout with concussions permanently changed the national narrative of this issue.)
If there’s too much Muchnick for everyone else’s taste, there’s too much Bob Costas for mine. This is not directly a knock on Costas (also an acquaintance verging on friend) — for only a fool could fail to acknowledge that he is the best we have, maybe even a little too sharp for sports. The setup in which Costas asks the unanswerable question, “What can a football official responsibly tell a parent about the safety of football?”, is perfect.
Costas with a pitchfork, however, becomes a mere rhetorical Houdini, a little too fuzzy for full-blown social criticism. Pamphilon isn’t Ken Burns (thankfully), and this film doesn’t need the imprimatur and homilies of the most recognized face in network sports. When Costas rips ESPN for its now-defunct violence-pandering football segment, “You Got Jacked Up!”, I feel the same as when he pontificates about the failure of CBS’s Masters coverage to probe the controversy over the racist Augusta National Golf Club. Personally, what I want to see is whether Costas, who hobnobs with swimming’s biggest stars and anchors NBC’s Olympics package, will ever use his platform for a word or three about the national disgrace that is USA Swimming’s generation-long widespread youth sexual abuse and cover-up, now the subject of Congressional and FBI investigations.
(Yes, your reviewer is a free-range curmudgeon. Again, the bosses at Concussion Inc. LLP don’t pay me well enough to be otherwise.)
Though “You Got Jacked Up!” was indefensible, USOF is, if anything, too restrained in its depiction of football porn. The movie presents only one monster hit featured on that segment, with associated cackles and guffaws by Chris Berman, Tom Jackson, and the other ESPN frat boys. I believe an extended montage would have reinforced the point more powerfully than the clucking Costas and other talking heads.
In the same vein, Pamphilon’s hour-and-40-minute feature should have had more than a polite once-over-lightly on all the big hits orchestrated all across the “United States of football” every single day, by vicariously bloodthirsty Pee-Wee coaches whose orders are dutifully and routinely carried out, pipsqueak on pipsqueak. This is what I mean about Pamphilon not making the same film I would have ordered off the shelf.
Then again, that wasn’t this director’s vision. His is a frankly NFL-centric story, with a Band of Brothers frame, and it was executed sincerely and beautifully. There’s no doubting the bond between Pamphilon and retired player Kyle Turley, whose life’s second act as a musician provides the sound track, even as his activism against the NFL’s default on traumatic brain injuries lurches toward a complex moral.
Always fighting, on the field and off, Turley is inspiring and tragic. But for my money, the male star of the movie is Sean Morey, the special-teams kamikaze whose frightening post-career loss of impulse control, accompanied by ritual denial, plays out in real time on the screen in painful, emotionally naked scenes with his wife. Successive footage shows Morey pushing the NFL Players Association toward honest research of concussion syndrome and fair play for its victims; censoring himself under pressure from the powers-that-be at a Super Bowl week press conference; and ultimately quitting in disgust the very committee he had co-founded to bring transparency and justice to this ongoing problem.
This is heartbreaking stuff, yet it’s equaled and surpassed in scenes involving the two female stars of the film: Eleanor Perfetto and Sylvia Mackey, the “living widows” of, respectively, chronic traumatic encephelopathy-impaired Ralph Wenzel and Hall of Famer John Mackey. (Both women became actual widows during the shooting of the movie.) Here’s where Pamphilon’s camera is indeed unsparing, as he shows us legends in wheelchairs far too young, drooling, heads at grotesque angles, unable to feed themselves. Clearly, he made the cinematic decision that this particular brand of pornography was more important to exploit than the by now overly familiar video of 100-g-force collisions. And he may well be right about that.
As America cruises through yet another season of football carnage — death, catastrophic injury, silent and inexorable erosion of the gross national cognitive product, all in the name of mass entertainment at the supposed national hearth — what matters most is not whether filmmakers as talented and passionate as Pamphilon make my movies or their own. No, let me correct that: It is essential that they make only their own. Phenomena like the systematic braining of boys and the systematic raping of girls — both byproducts of our obsessive and professionalized sports culture — take hold and persist precisely because we’re spectators, consumers, looking over our shoulders at what other people are saying, rather than using their own eyes and ears and other senses, and thinking and speaking for themselves.
Let a hundred USOF’s bloom. Then let’s roll up our sleeves and do something about what this sport is doing to us, and what we are doing to ourselves.