“God did not want us to play football,” says Bennet Omalu as played by Will Smith in the new film Concussion. The problem of concussions in American football clearly deserves more attention and this film about the doctor who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.) aims to provide it. Although a forensic pathologist discovering brain damage in former football players doesn’t make for the most riveting plot, Concussion keeps the viewer engaged with this important issue through the telling of Dr. Omalu’s compelling life story.
The film begins in 2002 when former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster is found dead and brought into the coroner’s office for autopsy. The incredibly well educated Dr. Omalu (Will Smith), an immigrant from Nigeria, is in charge of the autopsy and finds severe brain damage in Webster. Omalu eventually deduces that this brain damage is the long-term result of repeated sub-concussive and concussive blows to the center’s head throughout his professional football career. Realizing that the NFL is doing nothing while former players are going insane, Omalu publishes a paper on this new disease with the help of neurologist Steven T. Dekosky (Eddie Marsan), county coroner Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), and former Steelers’ team doctor Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin). The NFL is not amused by Dr. Omalu’s realization and does its best to discredit him and his research.
But Dr. Omalu isn’t a man to be discouraged when he knows he speaks the truth. With the help of Bailes, he finds three other NFL players who died as a result of C.T.E.: Terry Long, Justin Strzelczyk, and Andre Waters. You might think the NFL would have to acknowledge Omalu’s findings once he has conclusively shown the presence of C.T.E. in four former players (the scientific burden of proof requires only three such cases). But things are not so simple. And what ensues is both disturbing and disheartening.
While this main plot line is being pursued, we get to know Omalu on a deeply personal level. We see him fall in love with his future wife Prima Mutiso (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and start a family, we see his confusion when people won’t accept the truth, and—perhaps most powerfully—we see his moments of disillusionment in the American Dream. This subplot tells the story of a man who insists on doing the right thing, at whatever cost to himself. As Dr. Seuss’s Lorax speaks for the trees, so does Dr. Omalu speak for the football players who could end up in body bags by playing the sport they love.
Will Smith’s portrayal of Omalu is excellent. While there have been complaints that his accent isn’t even close to an authentic Nigerian one—it isn’t—Smith did have a dialect coach and the film clearly made an effort to convey the story accurately. Although perhaps on many levels it would have been better to cast a Nigerian actor in the role, I respect the decision to use Smith. Not only does he give an amazing and emotionally nuanced performance, but his star power also automatically gives this film a higher profile. Expanding the audience it reaches can only increase the impact of this movie’s presentation of a controversial issue. The other actors are all good fits for their roles. Alec Baldwin does a good job portraying a man entrenched in the system, who struggles to do the right thing for the players while fully aware that he is betraying his friends who still work in the NFL.
The cinematography in Concussion is serviceable. Although it doesn’t contribute anything unique to the lexicon of cinematography, there is enough diversity of shots to keep what could otherwise have been a rather monotonous movie interesting. What the film does do well is connect the real and the portrayed. Scenes that shift between dramatized portrayals of players with C.T.E. to real, in-game footage are painful to watch. The footage, consisting of brutal tackle after brutal tackle, visibly displays the traumatic events that lead to C.T.E., while the actors depicting players in their last moments of life show how scared and committed these men are to ending the pain, no matter the means. Clips from congressional hearings and NFL press conferences also help strengthen the story. In the year of “based on a true story,” Concussion does a good job of giving weight to its message.
And yet, this message is still not strong enough for my liking. While Concussion does an excellent job of communicating what C.T.E. is and that it is linked to football, it doesn’t take an aggressive enough position against the NFL. It shows how the NFL attempted to discredit Dr. Omalu and his findings, and demonstrates the League’s continued denial of facts, even in light of the public acceptance of the damage head trauma can cause. But the film could have gone further by showing how much the NFL knew and by emphasizing how little it cared about its players compared to its profits. And, of course, by making clear how little the NFL has changed.
While the message of the film is incredibly important and Dr. Omalu is a worthy protagonist, this isn’t the type of story that makes for an engaging movie. The choices in plot and direction all made this movie more interesting than it might have otherwise been, but Concussion remains a film that, however timely, will leave viewers wanting more out of their movie-going experience.
Grade: B A movie on an incredibly important issue, but not a story that lends itself to great cinema.
Rating: PG-13 Head trauma is traumatic and so is watching the NFL deny it.
Concussion, Columbia Pictures Runtime: 122 minutes