‘I’ ON CULTURE
I was not surprised that Concussion was a condemnation of football violence, but I was impressed with how well it presents the case against the National Football League and its seeming lack of interest in the welfare of its own players. Buoyed by a superb performance by Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu, a pathologist from Nigeria, this is a powerful, disturbing film.
Omalu was the doctor who performed the autopsy on former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster (David Morse), a former Hall of Fame star who had been reduced to homelessness before committing suicide in his truck. Omalu discovered massive brain damage, a disease now known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Omalu, a deeply religious man, is horrified and traces Webster’s career, eventually estimating the number of hard hits as over 70,000. Although his findings were initially ignored, more former professional football players were being found to show symptoms.
At that point, the National Football League and its supporters began to put up vicious opposition. Omalu, who is trying to create a life in the United States (and, ironically, his belief in the essential goodness of this country faces enormous obstacles), along with a colleague, Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who becomes a friend and eventually the love of his life, face concerted, nasty opposition.
He is supported by a couple of key people: Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), Omalu’s mentor and fellow pathologist, and Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), who used to be the Steelers’ team doctor and is filled with remorse for not having spotted Webster’s problems. However, almost everyone connected with the NFL, and that includes the media and more than a few legislators, combined to condemn his work. Of course, over time he was proven to be right, and even the team owners of the NFL have provided some (albeit limited) reparations to injured players.
A great flaw in this film is that the argument is so one-sided. Because the opposition to the research was so fierce, the people making those arguments seem mean and even evil. Watching dozens of crashes between huge men, interspersed with comments that nothing dangerous was really happening, is a devastating indictment, even if it is a setup. And that weakens the film.
Eventually we see former Steelers lineman Justin Strzelczyk (Matthew Willig), a gigantic man who believes he’s suffering from bipolar disorder and depression, fly into a rage at his kids and wife, scaring them (and us). Dave Duerson (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a former player, yells at another player, broke and suffering from CTE, telling him to “get it together.” Duerson later becomes a victim himself, and the moment he realizes the horror of what he has done is incredibly powerful.
The brilliant performance by Smith is what makes the movie really work. He disappears completely into Omalu. There is none of the playful “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” present. Using prosthetics, as well as standing differently and speaking with a very effective, consistent Nigerian accent, Smith manages to create a very real character. His faith in God and in right and wrong as demonstrated by America is very effective. He carries the movie.
I would not be surprised to see Smith mentioned as a possible awards nominee for the film, although it is a tough year for actors with many great performances. Mbatha-Raw provides great support. She brings a sweetness to the relationship that we seldom see. Brooks is effective in bringing more than a bit of humor to the whole thing. Baldwin exceeds his usual self. Instead of playing for laughs, he exudes guilt. He seems far more real and decent than those people battling the crusade. Those playing the afflicted players were very good.
The problem described in the film is an important one. Remember, as one performer pointed out, “We’re an industry that actually owns a day.” Football is a dangerous sport. As one note at the end of the film pointed out, 28 percent of retired players suffer some form of CTE. And many of us worry over sons and grandsons. Much more needs to be done, and this film is a good start.
Yes, it is one-sided, but so was Spotlight about child abuse in the Catholic Church. Some things cannot be defended. Watching the coverup by the NFL is painful. If you’re a football fan, this is a not-to-be-missed film. If not, well, it is a good (if not really great) time at the movies.