January 04, 2016
Family Film Blogging (Non-Star Wars Edition): Creed and Concussion
Posted by Christine Hurt

We took the older kids to some non-Star Wars PG-13 movies this holiday, though I am still resisting going to see Daddy's Home, which just seems awkwardly horrible from the trailer I've seen dozens of times now.  The two we did go see were Creed and Concussion, and I would heartily recommend them both.

As you probably now, Creed is a sequel/reboot of the Rocky franchise, which I have to say I lost track of after Mr. T and the Russians.  In fact, I'm not sure I've ever seen Rocky the original from start to finish.  I did see the last half of I and the first part of II during a marathon last year, so I think I'm good on the basics.  Rocky III was the first movie I saw sitting next to a boy, so I can remember it pretty well.  Enough about me.

So, Sylvester Stallone has now realized that he cannot carry the franchise indefinitely, and this episode focuses on Adonis Creed (Donnie), the son of Apollo Creed, born out-of-wedlock by Apollo's mistress after his fatal boxing match with Ivan Drago in Rocky IV.  Donnie ends up in the foster care system after the death of his mother, but Apollo's widow eventually finds him and becomes his guardian.  Donnie spends the last half of his adolescence in plush Californian opulence, nurtured by his "Ma," but secretly satisfies his desire to fight by boxing in Tijuana.  Though he becomes successful in the financial industry at a young age, he leaves it behind to move to Philadelphia to ask Rocky Balboa to train him.  Of course, Rocky at first balks at the suggestion, having become a semi-reclusive figure after the death of Adrian, running a restaurant and living in his old, modest home.  (Apparently, Rocky lost his fortune in Rocky V, which I missed.)  Eventually, however, Rocky takes on Donnie as a fighter, and the two take on a familial-type relationship.  Donnie calls him "Unc," and he moves in with him.

Donnie and Rocky try to keep his identity a secret, but of course Adonis' relationship to Apollo is leaked to the media.  Following this revelation, the heavyweight champion, who is awaiting a probable prison sentence, offers to fight Donnie for the championship.  The fight will bring the Irish fighter a lot of money and publicity, which will help his family after he goes to prison.  Donnie of course has nothing to lose.  The fight is a lot like the championship fight between Rocky and Apollo in the original movie, in case you haven't figured that out yet.

I never watch actual boxing, but I kind of enjoy boxing movies.  I once heard a director explain that boxing movies are really dancing movies, and that makes a lot of sense to me.  Michael B. Jordan, who we knew from Parenthood and The Fantastic Four, was pretty amazing in this really physical role.  And Stallone, who did not write the screenplay, gives a great, understated performance as Rocky Balboa.  If you are a Rocky fan, there are plenty of homage moments that will make you nostalgic.  If you aren't, then you will enjoy the movie afresh. 

Concussion is also a movie about a contact sport, but this movie focuses more on the darker side of athletic violence, not the poetic beauty.  Based on a true story, the film focuses on Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist who, working in Pittsburgh, was assigned to perform an autopsy on a former Pittsburgh Steeler center, Mike Webster.  Against the wishes of his colleagues, he performs extra tests to determine why Webster's mental health had deteriorated to the point where he was living in his truck, sniffing super glue and taser-ing himself so he could sleep.  Dr. Omalu identifies brain damage undetectable by CT scans, seemingly caused by repetitive sub-concussive blows to the head over the course of Webster's successful NFL career.  He shows his findings to notable academics at Columbia University, and together with the head coroner in Pittsburgh, publishes his findings.  The movie chronicles the downward trajectory of his medical career as his work earns him jeers, death threats, and damage to his reputation. The film presents a scene in which the FBI will investigate the Pittsburgh coroner and try to force Dr. Omalu into being either a witness or defendant to the trumped-up charges, but Slate has exposed this scene as misleading.  I have not done any independent research on the FBI investigation.  Eventually, Dr. Omalu gains access to the brains of three other NFL players, all of whom exhibit the same damage.  Dr. Omalu was later vindicated, but only at great personal cost.

Commentators on the movie continue to argue over the implications of Dr. Omalu's research and whether NFL players are exposing themselves to outsized risks.  The movie, however, does pose interesting questions.  Even if the evidence against football collisions was incontrovertible and airtight, would it make a difference?  Would fans stop watching or players stop playing?  Would 10% of moms not let their kids play football, and (as suggested in the movie) professional football would die?  If the coroner assigned to Mike Webster had been a Steeler's fan, or even a football fan, would chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) never have been detected?  The Sony email leaks apparently contained emails suggested that the movie was changed so as not to anger the NFL.  Even so, the movie seems to be fairly straightforward in its blaming the NFL for not disclosing risks that it had discovered and not seriously investigating red flags.  In the end, it is a movie, and the movie is quite compelling.

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