Concussion (and five other films about the darker side of sport)
As the number one sport – and, arguably, the number two religion – of the United States, it's no surprise that there are a huge number of films dedicated to American Football, and they come in all shapes and sizes. From comedies like The Waterboy and The Longest Yard to real-life stories in the vein of Invincible and The Blind Side, the sport has been covered in exhaustive detail on the big screen, but last year director Peter Landesman brought a story to the screen that sheds the sport in a totally different light.
Will Smith is the star of Concussion, but he doesn't play a footballer, or even a coach. Instead, Smith takes on the role of real life Nigerian-American physician Bennet Omalu, the man who discovered a previously unknown type of brain damage caused by repeated head trauma, such as crunching helmets with an opponent on the football field.
Omalu had discovered the condition, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), after performing an autopsy on former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster, who died abruptly in 2002 following years of mental health issues including depression and cognitive impairment. Although an initial brain scan produced normal-looking results, Omalu felt he was missing something and conducted his own independent research, discovering a type of condition similar to those that were normally only found in boxers.
Omalu took his research to the NFL, assuming – perhaps naively – that the organisation would take the opportunity to put safeguards in place to protect their most valuable assets: the players. Instead, the NFL ignored his findings and put Omalu under extraordinary pressure not to make his research public, barring him from a committee meeting on player safety and allegedly having him and his wife followed, putting enormous strain on Omalu's personal life. The doctor is only vindicated when another former player takes his own life and praises Omalu's work in his suicide note. It's a grim revelation, but one that forces the NFL to act.
Landesman may only have one other feature film to his directorial CV as yet, but it doesn't show; Concussion does a great job of exposing the underbelly of America's most popular sport and Will Smith's performance as the beleaguered doctor is perhaps the best he's turned in since his Oscar-winning portrayal of Muhammad Ali. The supporting cast is impressive too, with the likes of Albert Brooks, Alec Baldwin, Eddie Marsan and Luke Wilson all putting in a shift.
American Football isn't the only sport with a dark side, as the litany of recent doping scandals in various sports has made abundantly, depressingly clear, but great films about the shadier side of sports are rarer than you might think.
You can find the trailer for Concussion below, beneath that we dug up five of the best films tackling the darker side of sport...
Jackie Robinson is often credited as being the first African-American to play Major League Baseball, but that's not quite true; a handful of black players such as Moses Fleetwood Walker had played in the top flight before, but that was before the International League (as the MLB was then known) passed a rule in 1888 known as the 'colour line', effectively banning all black players from competing in the major leagues.
Robinson became the first black player of the modern era to break that line when he signed for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 and went on to enjoy a decade-long career at the top of his sport, but in a segregated America his ride to success was far from smooth. His shirt number 42 has since been universally retired from all MLB teams as a mark of honour, but Brian Helgeland's biopic charts Robinson's rise in the face of overt persecution from fans, coaches and teammates alike, with Chadwick Boseman putting in a superb performance as the legendary second baseman.
Scandals in sport have been alarmingly commonplace in recent times, but few have cast quite such a dark shadow as the death of former Olympic wrestler Dave Schultz, murdered in 1996 by his financial backer and owner of the Foxcatcher Farm training facility, John E. duPont. Bennet Miller's film charts the events leading up to that fateful night at du Pont's Delaware estate and Steve Carrell puts in a remarkably chilling performance as the wealthy sponsor backing the Schultz brothers' bid for Olympic glory. Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo are also excellent as the two wrestling siblings and although it's not always easy to watch, this is one of the most tense and atmospheric films on the subject of sport you'll ever see.
As a survivor of cancer and the man with an unprecedented seven consecutive Tour de France victories to his name, Lance Armstrong had been considered a role model for cycling the world over, but even at his peak there were some who found his meteoric rise to glory too good to be true and, as it turned out, they were right.
Investigations by the U.S. Anti Doping Agency and the FBI subsequently forced Armstrong to admit his involvement in an extensive program of steroid use and director Stephen Frears tells the story from the viewpoint of Irish journalist David Walsh, one of the first to publicly question Armstrong's dramatic improvement. Armstrong was subsequently stripped of all his titles, but the sport is still battling to recover its reputation and Ben Foster's performance here as the disgraced champion is spine-tingling.
Football has come a long way since the widespread hooliganism of the 1980s and while several films have examined the scene of organised violence between rival fans, including Green Street and Philip Davis' hugely underrated I.D., Alan Clarke's 1989 film The Firm remains the high watermark against which all other films on the subject must be judged. Gary Oldman puts in a stunning performance as Bexy, the leader of a fictionalised version of West Ham's notorious Inter City Firm, whose appetite for violence threatens to destroy the lives of those around him as well as his own. Clarke's film is still the definitive account of eighties football hooliganism, but it's also a stark portrait of a disenfranchised working class under the culturally divisive policies of Margaret Thatcher and this is essential viewing for any football fan.
In 1986 Mike Tyson became the youngest boxer in history to win a world title and in the years that followed Tyson dominated the sport to such an extent that he seemed invincible, but the death of his trainer, mentor and legal guardian Cus D'Amato a year earlier had already begun to have a negative effect and James Toback's 2008 documentary tells the story behind the rise and fall of one of the most feared heavyweight boxers in history. Just six years after he took the WBC belt from Trevor Burbeck, Tyson was convicted of rape and sentenced to six years in prison. His return to the ring was marred by controversy and Toback's film is a fascinating account of one of the sport's most notorious figures.