The NFL has found itself under the microscope in recent years for the way in which it has dealt with everything from drug use to domestic violence, but an even bigger issue for the men who play the game has been the effects that the long term impact that the beautiful but brutal sport has left them in long after the final whistle has blown. That serves as the basis for Concussion, the new film that takes a more in depth look at the man who uncovered the cranial trauma that was affecting so many former players.
Will Smith stars as Dr. Bennet Omalu, a principled and highly educated coroner in Pittsburgh who discovered CTE after performing the autopsy on NFL Hall of Famer and Pittsburgh Steelers great Mike Webster. As we see early in the film, Webster (David Morse) appears to have gone crazy, living in his vehicle, separated from his family and often seeking either medication or more extreme ways to alleviate the voices in his head. Much to the surprise of Omalu, who was on duty when Webster’s body arrived, the initial look of the brain was consistent with a man of 50, but did not explain why he went crazy at such a young age. The persistent Omalu then orders a series of tests to further investigate, much to the consternation of one colleague (Mike O’Malley) and with a word of caution from his boss, Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), who realizes the can of worms this can open up if something is found that paints the NFL in a bad light.
Omalu eventually discovers CTE, a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in those with repeated trauma, and he authors a paper on it. But it’s not long before the NFL gets wind and attempts to discredit him. So Omalu takes his findings to the press, and that’s when the threatening phone calls come in. But amidst all the calls, there is one, from a Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin) that suggests that while he is “in trouble,” he’s not wrong. Bailes is a former Steelers team physician, who meets with Omalu, sees his findings and helps sets him on a path to bringing CET to the NFL’s attention. As you might expect, Omalu’s desire to do the right thing often conflicts with the NFL’s desire to keep things business as usual and he’s met with much resistance at each step.
As for the film itself, Concussion serves more as a biopic about Omalu. We see the dedicated doc fall for a Nigerian woman (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) whom he takes in at his church’s request, we see how his discovery affects their relationship over time and we see how the NFL’s dogged determination to deny his discovery led him to question how far he was willing to go for them to hear what he had to say.
There’s no denying that Smith’s acting and portrayal of Omalu is top notch and the overall story intriguing, but there’s just something holding this film back. It feels as though the movie is a tad long and while Omalu’s story should be the centerpiece, the players affected with CTE are often glossed over. Their stories are told in brief scenes where we see them at their most pained moments before taking their lives. While powerful and making the point, it could have perhaps been more impactful to see the changes to their personality over time. Only briefly do we see this portrayed through Dave Duerson, a former player high up in the NFL offices and staunch supporter of the league who initially denied fellow players seeking help. But later Duerson would suffer from CTE himself, taking his own life but having the cognizance to leave the brain intact for study. It was ultimately Duerson’s sacrifice that led to the NFL having to listen to and entertain Omalu’s findings.
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Posted by AC