When I lived in Indianapolis, the Colts were at the height of their success. With Peyton Manning on the field and Tony Dungy calling the shots, I got swept up in the fan frenzy as they won the Super Bowl in 2007 (against the Chicago Bears, no less). I even had a jersey, and was more than willing to wear it to participate in “Blue Fridays” at the office.
But in the ten years since, I’ve not only moved away from Indy and lost all track of the Colts, but I’ve made the decision, quite deliberately, to stop watching the NFL. Not for any thorny political reasons (though that doesn’t help their case), but instead because, like climate change and the world being round, the science is just too damning to not be believed: professional football players are slowly destroying their brains – and shortening their lifespans – with every hit and tackle.
In Requiem for a Running Back, opening today at the Gene Siskel Film Center, director Rebecca Carpenter chronicles her family’s very personal journey with CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), the degenerative brain disease that was found to be present in 110 of the 111 brains examined for a recent study. Her father, Lewis Carpenter, is the running back of the title, having played for the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions in the 1960s and ’70s. Through archival footage, interviews and voice-over, Carpenter’s now-grown daughter recalls a confusing and sometimes scary childhood with a father who was easily provoked, hard to please and increasingly confused over the years.
The film is a massively personal effort, as Carpenter (the director) interviews her own mother and sister to help color in the years living with their temperamental, unpredictable patriarch, and infuses the film with her own voice-over recounting her life growing up in “a football family.” As the film progresses, we’re introduced to other NFL families, both the players and their loved ones, who are also struggling with the ramifications of their years on the field. From forgetfulness to outright dementia, there’s something these former players are struggling with, and though CTE can only be diagnosed post-mortem, the flashing neon signs are impossible to ignore.
As one woman’s investigation into her own family history, Requiem gets the job done. We get a front row seat as Carpenter learns more about her father, the disease that riddled his brain during her childhood and the ripple effects she and others dealing with the disease continue to navigate. But at 89 minutes long, there’s a lot of filler for a documentary that, if you’ve been following the issue even from the nosebleed seats, doesn’t add anything new into the conversation. As the narrative weaves in Carpenter’s visit to a lab studying CTE (and ultimately, her own father’s brain) and the larger issues facing the NFL as they sort out how to respond to the crisis, the personal thread gets lost.
Requiem was surely made on a shoestring budget, a cinematic labor of love if ever there was one. And though it’s had a solid festival run across the country, it lacks the polish of a more accomplished family-centric documentary (think the masterful Stories We Tell) that would elevate it from a moving picture album to a universal issues doc. The voice-over is often choppy and can feel forced; the graphics are a bit rough; the whole thing could be tightened up by twenty minutes.
Nevertheless, if it’s one more voice in the chorus calling for attention to be paid to the issue of brain health in the NFL, these shortcomings can be forgiven. Parents, don’t let your sons grow up to be Lewis Carpenter.