Friday, December 25, 2015


Adapting Jeanne Marie Laskas' 2009 GQ article, Concussion delivers the film the NFL doesn't want you to see this Christmas. Beginning with Nigerian-American forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu's (Will Smith) autopsy of former Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster (David Morse) which will create a new category of degenerative disease known as CTE, writer/director Peter Landesman's film focuses more on the effect of Omalu's work as the work itself.

Fighting opposition from his own superiors (Mike O'Malley), intense backlash from fans, anger from current players, pressure from the government, and a campaign of organized disinformation by the NFL that the Republicans usually reserve for discrediting Global Warming, will force the doctor to fight for the truth every step of the way.

Concussion is an interesting, if a little straightforward and simplistic, look at Omalu. Smith proves he still has some acting chops in his best role in the last couple of years. Alec Baldwin, Albert Brooks, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw lead a supporting cast as the few friends Omalu relies on while taking on the NFL.

While making the science of the film accessible to the common moviegoer, and doing his best to make a man looking through a microscope interesting on-screen, Landesman's film isn't without its problems. In vilifying the NFL the script even goes so far as to strongly suggest that the organization is responsible for a personal tragedy in Omalu's life (a claim the movie then makes no attempt to substantiate). Concussion also ignores the large list of players who simply don't care about his findings. Many NFL players are willing to take any risks, even degenerative brain damage, to play a game they love while also winning the life-changing multi-million dollar lottery that comes with playing professional football. That this view isn't acknowledged feels shortsighted.

Those who haven't been following sport news over the last half-decade may be more surprised at the movie's source material than I was. For a movie titled Concussion the movie isn't really about concussions. The main focus of the film is squarely on Smith's character and the upheaval of both his personal and private life following his initial discovery and his refusal to discredit his own work. As a character study of the man the movie works quite well both in his private moments with Mbatha-Raw's character and in his fight to get his research seen and acknowledged.

The movie has come under scrutiny from the family of Dave Duerson (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) for the film's portrayal of the former NFL player and his dismissal of friends showing symptoms of the same illness Omalu was investigating. It also suggests that Paul Tagliabue stepping down from Commissioner of the National Football League and the hiring of Roger Goodell (Luke Wilson) were both solely influenced by Omalu's quest to bring the truth of concussions to light. According to the script the multi-billion dollar industry had no other concerns other than a paper published in a medical journal which at the time wasn't getting much press.

Concussion's unwillingness to dive into the gray areas of the issue while painting the NFL as a sinister agency knowingly harming its players leaves the movie feeling a bit heavy-handed. It doesn't help that Omalu also appears to be the most selfless character in film outside of a Frank Capra movie. In fact the entire movie has a very Capraesque quality to it (although without the filmmaker's flair) while refusing to admit to itself or the audience how it is framing the conversation.

Concussion is certainly worth seeing and even more worth talking about. The effects of concussions and CTE are very real. The choice to make the film as much, if not more, about Omalu means the little information we get about concussions and their effects aren't that revealing in today's world. A documentary about the unfortunate effects of CTE would likely be far more effective and shocking. Taking place years after the truth of Omalu's work has been accepted by everyone, including the NFL who has made changes following their eventual acceptance of CTE, Concussion doesn't have the impact it could have had if the movie had been released five years ago.

It works in continuing the conversation about concussions but I'm not sure that Concussion in any way elevates the debate or shines a light on anything we didn't already know about as we only get glimpses of the men fighting the madness brought on by CTE which caused more than one player to take his own life. And despite taking place after the events have all played out, the movie lacks the "gotcha" moment the movie keeps foreshadowing as the only true payoff we get is s slapped-on epilogue that feels disconnected from the rest of the movie.

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