On League of Denial

frontline
When I was in elementary school, the only part of the school day I looked forward to was playing football at recess. I grew up in Wisconsin, and the mid–90s was a good time to be a Packers fan—the Mike Holmgren glory years. My friends and I would draw up our plays and pretend we were Brett Favre, tossing TDs to Shannon Sharpe and Robert Brooks, handing off to Edgar Bennett and Dorsey Levens. My best friend was a perpetual team captain, and even though I was clearly the worst football player out there, I could always count on him to not pick me last. That’s what friends do.

There was just one problem for us: The school administrators would never let us play tackle. On the gridiron of Cooper Elementary, four-hand touch ruled, until our principal banned even that, and we had to resort to two-hand touch. If they weren’t watching, we tackled anyway. Usually, nobody got hurt. But every now and then, two kids would run into each other, you’d hear the clang of skulls clashing, one of them wouldn’t get up, and we’d stand around and hope they would before a grownup noticed something was wrong.

I’ve never put on a football uniform, but those days on the playground came back to me yesterday when I finally got around to watching League of Denial, PBS Frontline’s excruciating two-hour special on how the NFL spent over a decade covering up and attempting to destroy a growing body of scientific evidence linking football to long-term brain damage and CTE. There’s not much new to report, but to see the full body of evidence against the NFL so compellingly told is nothing short of damning. It highlights the NFL’s hypocrisy, selling its violence while hiding its consequences. And although it doesn’t say so explicitly, it inevitably questions our own complicity in consuming a sport so cruel to those we pay to play it.

League of Denial is in part a straightforward whistleblower narrative, and it finds its heroes and villains quickly. One hero is Bennet Omalu, the Pittsburgh medical examiner who discovered and published the first known case of CTE in an NFL player, Steelers center Mike Webster. Another is Ann McKee, the Boston University brain researcher and lifelong football fan who would go on to find it 45 of her 46 cases. That inner juxtaposition was perfectly captured in one shot that brought a smile to my face: a NY Giants helmet on her bookshelf next to a boxed copy of Endnote, a software tool academics use to manage references and bibliographies. (Personally, I prefer BibTeX.)
giants_endnote
With similar economy, the film needs only two lines of taut narration to establish one bad guy of the mid–90s: “NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue orchestrated the league’s response. Tagliabue had begun his career as a lawyer.”

It was he who dismissed the concussion crisis as the manufactured product of “pack journalism” and personally appointed a rheumatologist to a sham medical committee to “investigate” the issue. The committee cranked out shoddy papers with sweeping denials based on small sample sizes that the editor-in-chief of the journal Neurosurgery, himself a consultant for the New York Giants, accepted over the objections of his own sports section editor.

As the film chronicles the researchers’ struggle to raise awareness, clashing with the NFL’s panel of experts, there are plenty of chilling moments:

  • Bennet Omalu, reflecting on the entire episode: “I wish I had never met Mike Webster. CTE has drawn me into the politics of science, the politics of the NFL. You can’t go against the NFL. They’ll squash you. I really sincerely wished it didn’t cross my path of life. Seriously.”
  • Mike Nowinski co-director of BU’s CTE research center, who went from a Harvard football player to pro wrestler, taking countless blows to the head along the way: “What motivated me every day was that my head was killing me.”
  • And the haunting voiceover of Junior Seau in an NFL Films production, years before he would succumb to CTE at only 43 years old and put a bullet through his heart, preserving his brain for research: “You have to sacrifice your body. You have to sacrifice years down the line. When we’re 40, 50 years old, we probably won’t be able to walk. That’s the sacrifice that you take to play this game.”

The other central figures of the documentary are the journalists themselves. The film is based mostly on reporting by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, brothers who both work for ESPN. And as it goes on, it acquires a muckraking metanarrative, as the Fainarus and New York Times reporter Alan Schwarz (who was nominated for a Pulitzer for his coverage) work to cover the story. This is only enhanced by the fact that ESPN, who had collaborated with Frontline for most of the production, suddenly pulled out just weeks before it was to air. Although the network claimed they quit because they didn’t exercise “full editorial control,” the New York Times reported it was due to NFL pressure applied personally by Roger Godell. (Both the NFL and ESPN denied this, and ESPN has since aired excerpts of the documentary and promoted the Fainaru’s book of the same name.)

Although the film is built upon a David vs. Goliath structure, at its core is a health and science issue: can playing football cause CTE? It plays out not on the field or in dramatic Congressional hearings but in stuffy medical journals. League of Denial is at its most innovative when its reporters make this academic prose leap off the page. A key moment is a letter to the editor in which the NFL’s in-house concussion committee calls on Omalu to retract his paper. In ESPN’s Peter Keating’s retelling, this is the league going after him “with a vengeance…like a nuclear missile strike on his reputation!”

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But the propulsive narrative struggles to capture fine detail. As in many a science story, the “more work must be done” caveats from independent sources are shoehorned in at the end. The way the film treats McKee’s accusation of sexism on the part of the NFL’s researchers is awkward and unsure, and a less than illuminating glance at the insidious ways in which sexism can infect academia. And there’s a big story left uninvestigated: How did the NFL committee’s papers, with their bad science and obvious conflicts of interest, get published in a reputable peer-reviewed medical journal in the first place?

But those aren’t things that the filmmakers chose to focus on, which is fine. Although there’s nothing new here, League of Denial stands as a definitive document of the subject—for now. The issue of concussions will not go away, and continue to resonate as more research is done into the troubling preliminary results of CTE found in teenagers who played football.

But maybe the biggest repercussions will be with the viewers. Like most football fans, I’ve been following this sad, depressing story for a while now, and it’s changed the way I see the sport. For the sake of argument, forget the outrageous deceit on the part of the NFL. Simply knowing the full consequences of the sport’s violent nature makes me question whether my own enjoyment of it is ethical. Does the fact that the players (now) knowingly accept the risk let me off the hook? I’ll say this: the visceral thrill of watching a big hit is gone. Or rather, it’s immediately replaced by nagging doubt: How many future memories does that one hit erase?

I’ve had versions of this conversation with several of my friends—usually over beer at bar while watching football. We just can’t pull ourselves away. Even as my childhood hero Brett Favre says he can’t recall what sports his own daughter plays, and that “God only knows the toll” that football takes.

I’m glad my mom never saw us play tackle.

On Gravity: When 3D is necessary

GRAVITY

I’ve seen Gravity twice now. Like so many others, I found Alfonso Cuarón’s film to be one the great moviegoing experiences of my life. It was visceral in a way in which I’d never felt sitting in a theater before, and engaged my senses and my spatial awareness in a way that seems only possible in 3D.

I’d even go so far as to say that Gravity is the first real 3D movie, in the sense that it is a post-photography movie. Cuarón’s trademark long shots prove to be a perfect means of embracing a method of moviemaking not bound by the conventions rooted in the physical artifacts that previous generations of artists have used, like frames, cuts, and zooms.

A photograph is an image; it’s built around its own two-dimensionality, and the entire language and grammar of film is built around the fact that it is filmed as a series of photographs. So much of the aesthetic framework of a photograph is that it renders reality in an artificial way, by removing a dimension. To an photographer, that is not restriction, but possibility. It means that a person in the foreground can exist next a person in the background within the frame, creating a dramatic or emotional subtext. The foreshortening of a receding line can be exploited to guide the eyes back to the subject. And so on.

Take Citizen Kane, the film that codified the language of cinema. In one scene, we see a humiliated Kane on the bad end of a business deal being forced to sign away most of his media empire.

Kane sighs, begins to reminisce, and walks into what appears to be a small room with windows behind him. But as he recedes into the frame he becomes smaller and smaller, until we realize that the windows are enormous! The set is evidently much deeper than our perspective suggested. And as Kane recedes into the depths, his image shrinks until he is dwarfed by the windows, reflecting his diminished status. It’s an optical illusion that conveys emotion—one that is made possible because of film’s two-dimensionality.

In another sequence, the camera pulls into a photograph on the wall until it subsumes the frame and then begins to move—the photograph becomes the film itself. (Trite, these days, perhaps, but what a shock it must have been to an audience in 1941.)

As another example of the power of two-dimensional imagery, you can take Cuarón’s own celebrated long shots in Children of Men. They were all about creating images, filling a frame with imagery and movement, and often incorporated real-life photographs like the scarecrows of Abu Ghraib.

All these aesthetic techniques are made possible because of the restriction of two-dimensionality. When this latest wave of 3D films started to build, many critics rejected them for this reason—by eliminating the restriction of flatness, they argued, you eliminated the possibilities that made film unique.

But to think that there aren’t also possibilities in the added dimension of depth that can be used creatively is pretty unimaginative (not to mention forgetful of theater, in which depth is always used to create tension; a soliloquy delivered from the back of a stage conveys a much different emotional state than one delivered from the front of the stage).

Gravity moves film into a realm where the classical rules of composition—those that date back to painting, the Renaissance, and an understanding of things like perspective and foreshortening—now require an extension, or a complete reformulation. (What is the 3-dimensional equivalent of the Rule of Thirds?)

Gravity is not filmed—it is filled. It takes place not within a frame but within a volume. It’s about space. Not outer space—but design space, mathematical space, the way an architect talks about space. An image can convey depth. But it cannot exist with depth. Gravity does. It happens in 3D.

And it should, because physics happens in 3 dimensions. Outer space doesn’t have a frame—there’s not up, down, left, right. Instead, you describe it with X, Y, and Z. Objects move, collide, and tumble about all three axes. Things go flying at the camera; in many other movies, it seems cheap, but here, it’s motivated by the physical ballet unfolding on screen before you. Your sense of physical intuition is engaged at all times, which is what makes this film so uniquely visceral.

Minor spoiler (highlight to view): For example, at one point, Sandra Bullock is tumbling past a spacecraft that she really needs to get a hold of. She flails her body, which makes no difference to her trajectory, of course. Then she throws an important object she’s been carrying up into space. When that happened, I thought, “No!” But then I saw what happened: her body was propelled down the frame in the opposite direction, towards the ship. Of course—Newton’s third law.

Even though we don’t deal with this weightless regime of physics in daily life, we do have an intuition that goes, “Oh yeah, that’s what would happen in space!” And that’s the entire movie, this pleasure of seeing the unexpected yet physically inevitable. The soundless explosions, spacecraft spinning, this ballet of broken objects—it’s all validated by our subconscious sense of physics. I would love to hear a neuroscientist’s take, but I would suspect that Gravity engages the part of the brain that you use to be aware of your surroundings, to be aware of your own location and momentum, and where it is taking you.

And for that, your mind needs 3D.

Revisiting Jurassic Park

Jurassic Park cover

I was six years old when Jurassic Park, the movie, was released, and I had dinosaurs on my brain.

I begged my parents to let me go to it. They refused, on the grounds that they had read in USA Today that many children older than me had been scared—even some 12 year olds! Nightmares, they said. I was indignant. Me? Nightmares?

But my parents held firm, and every time we drove past the mall on 28th St throughout the summer of ’93, the marquee sign tortured me, the block letters spelling out JURASSIC PARK, and then that dreaded code: PG-13.

JURASSIC PARK   PG-13

And so while my friends’ parents took them to see it, my parents, in a fit of protectiveness, bought me what they perceived to be the safer option: Jurassic Park, the book, by Michael Crichton.

This was, of course, completely misguided.

Jurassic Park was a kids’ movie—a whimsical tale of a mystical land filled with wondrous creatures gazed upon by worshipful faces in gentle dolly shots, accompanied by with John Williams’ strings and brass fanfares that sound equally at home underneath images of Santa Claus’ sled bounding into the air behind his reindeer.

The book is another animal. Within twenty pages, escaped procompsognathuses are running amok on the mainland—found in a nursery room, chewing chunks of baby in their jaws.

I was hooked. I read the book in three days flat, under the covers, late at night, every gruesome death a thrill to my senses: “Nedry stumbled, reaching blindly down to touch the ragged edge of his shirt, and then a thick slippery mass that was surprisingly warm, and with horror he suddenly knew he was holding his own intestines in his hands.”

I was eight years old, and I loved it.


Jurassic Park was the first “adult” novel I ever read. My parents believed that while movies would give you nightmares, books could do no harm. And so I plowed through Michael Crichton’s back catalog: Sphere, Congo, The Andromeda Strain, and so on. I felt like I was getting away with murder—or at least reading about it. Like generations of kids before me, books became my refuge, my playgrounds, where I learned about the world. And none had more of an influence on me than Jurassic Park.

I re-read Jurassic Park this week for the first time since then, and it was like an extended experience of deja vu. It was eerie how much I recalled across eighteen years. At times, entire passages came streaming back to me, like restoring an old file from some corner of my brain. Other times, tiny phrases, combinations of words would ring bells in my mind and I would realize that my memories of them were so pure and so strong, they represented the very first time I had ever encountered them. And the emotions the characters felt struck me even harder. Fear, powerlessness, melancholy. When I first read them, these were emotions I’d never seen articulated, although I would recognize them soon enough. It’s not a terribly large exaggeration to say that Jurassic Park formed the foundation of my understanding of the adult world.

Yes, Jurassic Park was a world where dinosaurs ruled the Earth, where chaos theory reigned, and people got their guts slashed out. But it was also a glorious world where lucid scientific explanations of genetics, chaos theory, and fractals flowed from the tongue of every scientist, programmer, and systems engineer like liquid chocolate from a liquid chocolate spout. In its way, Crichton-dialog is as artificial and stylized as Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing walk-and-talks, but I didn’t know that. I simply assumed that was how highly intelligent people spoke about complicated ideas—clearly, dramatically, and perfectly understandably.

The world of Jurassic Park was also one where the adults, when they weren’t speaking about science, spoke in clipped, 1980s-era dialog, liberally pre-punctuating their remarks with that ever-faithful interjection, “Jesus”.

“You look hot. Want a beer?” “Jesus, yeah.”

“Jesus,” somebody said.

“Jesus,” Gennaro said.

“Jesus,” Malcolm said.

“—Jesus, if an animal like that gets out,”

“Jesus,” Ed Regis said.

“Jesus, hang that up,” Nedry said.

“Jesus!”

“Jesus,” Muldoon said.

“Jesus,” Arnold said.

“Jesus.”

And so on.


These things I learned from Jurassic Park:

That Crays were the most powerful computers in the world.

That needing a quorum meant people were going to make an important decision.

That prescriptions drugs were expensive to develop, and so why shouldn’t the drug companies be able to charge $1000 a pill, $2000—whatever the hell they wanted?

That morphine was something that made sick people say things that sounded really smart.

But even more fundamental than that—I learned not so much how to write, but that it was possible to write. I learned that characters could speak without quotation marks and think in italics. I learned that a carefully placed em dash and an exclamation point could make my heart leap and my blood rush.


I wondered, before I began re-reading, if I was giving Crichton too much credit, if my eight-year-old self had been taken in by a mediocre writer and seduced by the novelty of “an adult novel” alone. The debacle of his 2006 anti-global science screed State of Fear left a bad taste in my mouth.

But no. As I read, my eyes flowed over the words like quickening rapids, and I sank into the text, submerged and speeding through. I was just as entranced as I had been as a child. It was good writing.

Not all of the content holds up. I winced at Malcolm’s rantings and ramblings, which read to me now as a pitch-perfect parody of a pseudoscience peddler. It would be brilliant, if it weren’t so  obvious that he is a vessel for Crichton’s true feelings.

But oh, the craft and construction. I still marvel at how the science serves the story, and the different strategies he uses to seamlessly weave it into the narrative—not just by providing crucial exposition, but using it to propel the plot forward. Often, he inserts the science as characters’ inner monologues that are then interrupted by a cliffhanging plot device. The science doesn’t serve the plot, it is the plot. It’s the setup, a pause in the pacing.

Other times, he dumps scientific jargon in front of the reader and then decodes them in the dialogue. For example, this little snippet of conversation comes a bit after he’s already discussed Cray supercomputers:

“You know who did their algorithms?”

“No,” Nedry said. “This company is very secretive.”

“Well, my guess is they’re doing something with DNA,” Barney said. “What’s the system?”

“Multi-XMP.”

“Multi-XMP? You mean more than one Cray? Wow.”

He didn’t need to slip in the XMP model designation, but doing so adds a little bit of color, and he manages to explain it unobtrusively in the dialogue.

He uses this to aid his characterization, as well. When we meet Ian Malcolm, Ellie’s curiosity at his all-black attire in the Dallas desert heat prompts a classic Malcolm quip that’s half science, half personality: “As a matter of fact, black is an excellent color for heat. If you remember your black-body radiation, black is actually best in heat. Efficient radiation.”

Crichton builds his world out of these scientific anecdotes, bringing Jurassic Park to life as a world where, in the middle of a ferocious raptor attack, there is time for the geneticist to assert to himself that behavior is only a second-order effect of DNA, and muse upon the distinction between empirical and theoretical work.


Indeed, the world of Jurassic Park, the Book, is nothing like the world of Jurassic Park, the Movie. This stuck out even more at me as I reread the book. Yes, the tone is darker—I knew that. But the characters are also so much more interesting.

Spielberg’s players have archetypal story arcs thrust upon them almost apologetically—perfunctory penance to offset the campy thrill of the dinosaurs, whom we all know are the real stars. Thus, we get the dopey subplot in which Grant has a hatred of children that is never motivated, but then—surprise! comes to love them. We also get the mushy Grant–Sattler love plot, and hints of a subplot revolving around Lex’s adolescent crush on Grant.

But in the book, Ellie Sattler’s character is a progressive portrayal of a woman in STEM. Instead of being Grant’s contemporary and love interest, she is his 24-year-old graduate student. Grant regards her completely on a professional level. And interestingly, none of the scientist or technical characters (excepting Malcolm) objectify her—but the nonscientists do. One after another, in throwaway moments, Bob Morris (an EPA investigator), Gennaro the lawyer, and Muldoon the hunter gaze upon her with astonishment or condescension—and each time, she either ignores them or stands her ground.

In Crichton’s world, she’s a woman who really does have it all. Not only is she on track for her PhD, “she’s marrying a nice doctor in Chicago sometime next year”—and she can outrun, outclimb, and outsmart velociraptors just as well as the men. Ellie is not a love interest for the men to fight over, and she’s not a Rambino, a Sigourney Weaver-in-Alien. She is simply, a scientist who is a woman. What could be more refreshing than that?

When I was 8, I saw the characters as either kids or adults—there was nothing in between. But now I can see how Crichton has a cast of research scientists at various stages of their careers, using them to portray the rigors and stresses of academia. At 40 years old, Alan Grant is a fledgling star in his field, probably recently tenured. 33-year-old Henry Wu is a desperately ambitious scientist with a funding crisis, for whom the role of Jurassic Park’s lead geneticist was an industry position he couldn’t refuse. (Before accepting, he asks Hammond: “Will my work be publishable?”) And at 24, Ellie is a PhD candidate—brilliant and undaunted.

And then there is 12-year-old Tim.

Tim is the beating, emotional heart of the novel. He’s intelligent, quiet, and vulnerable. In the movie, he’s an insufferable little snot. He talks Grant’s ear off, and for a while, seems to exist only to justify Grant’s otherwise odd hatred of children.

In many ways, in the novel, Tim is an honorary adult. He analyzes the dinosaurs in his head, comparing them to what he’s read in books. Are they nocturnal, he wonders? The famous T-rex attack is written from his point of view, and you see his thought process as he’s the first to realize the electric fences are down.

Tim knows who Grant is, respects him, and is nervous. When he first meets him, he mentally scans his encyclopedic knowledge of dinosaurs to recall Grant’s theories and published work. He tells him a poignant story about visiting the Museum of Natural History with his disinterested dad. He’s a kid who has read about his passion for his entire life and is now finally getting a chance to meet his heroes in real life.

This resonated with me. That same feeling crosses my mind every time I meet someone in the worlds of science and writing whose work I’m familiar with.

And as I read, I realized: Tim was the twelve-year-old my eight-year-old self wanted to grow up to be.