Synopsis – In Pittsburgh, accomplished pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu uncovers the truth about brain damage in football players who suffer repeated concussions in the course of normal play.
My Take – Honestly I was quite happy to find out about Will Smith‘s upcoming role as Deadshot in the upcoming DC adaption Suicide Squad, but what surprised me more was to find out that before Smith‘s turn as an antihero in the Comic-Book world, he would star in a fact-based sports drama film, which did not excite me at all! The trailer looked dull, the marketing was low key & it had a quite opening at some festivals around the world. But being a fan of his work, I decided to check this one out anyways & guess what? In simple words, its pretty good! With the help of pounding music, a couple of montage sequences, and few quick edits, director Peter Landesman (Parkland) conducts the film more like a psychological thriller. No! There is no actual mystery here, but the research & studies surrounding brain damage is presented with curious effort. The film made me see what athletes go through from a different angle and I’m saying that as a man who didn’t grow up a fan of American football. It’s really amazing to just know how powerful the NFL is. They control a day of the week (as the movie clearly states) and they allegedly even tried to get the filmmakers for this one to cut down on some of the film’s harsher segments. Some have said that the film doesn’t go after the NFL enough for its health issues, which I can somewhat agree with now, but I also think the film did a good job balancing the science behind concussions and how much denial went on for years from the NFL towards these particular doctors. The way the NFL handles this reminded me of how right wing politicians try to repudiate climate change, by hiring their own scientists, some of whom may not even be experts on the field study, because those politicians have been bought by fossil fuel businesses. The story follows Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith), who happens to be just about the nicest, most generous person you’d ever want to meet – and one of the smartest. He’s the coroner for Allegheny County, the county that includes Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Omalu is qualified enough to be an expert witness in a murder trial, astute enough to get an innocent man acquitted of a murder charge and compassionate enough to speak softly to a corpse before beginning an autopsy, asking the deceased to help him discover what happened to him or her. He’s also kind enough to share his limited living space with a recent African immigrant (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), expecting nothing in return.
However, as kind and unassuming as Omalu is, he’s also extraordinarily determined – determined to do his job as thoroughly as humanly possible and to right wrongs when he finds them, regardless of any obstacles placed in his path. Omalu is the pathologist on duty when the body of retired Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster (David Morse) is brought in to the morgue, and the good doctor is determined to solve the mystery of this man’s death at the age of 50. Studying the CT Scans done just 6 months before his death, Omalu is surprised to find no sign of Webster suffering from serve brain damage.Wanting to find out what led to Webster mentally deterioration,Omalu decides to spend his own money for extensive tissue analyses to be performed on Webster’s brain. With the support of his boss (Albert Brooks) and another local expert (Stephen Moyer), he publishes a paper on his study of Webster’s brain and the conclusions he reached in a major medical journal. He hopes to trigger further study by fellow scientists and an investigation by the National Football League. He receives help from the former Steelers team doctor (Alec Baldwin) and is supported by his new wife (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) every step of the way, but the forces arrayed against him may prove to be just too powerful. Omalu is desperate to be heard by the NFL leadership – people like the new commissioner Roger Goodell (Luke Wilson) and NFL Players’ Association executive Dave Duerson (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), but the question remains as to who can be more stubborn for longer – the NFL or Dr. Omalu. Based on an article in GQ magazine “Game Brain,” by Jeanne Marie Laskas, the screenplay by writer/director Peter Landesman clearly displays his investigative journalism past, by tackling each of Omalu’s attempts to make CTE public knowledge with an intense urgency, as Landesman presents each piece of Omalu’s study of CTE on NFL players in a clear and assessable manner, with Landsman giving the title a dramatic atmosphere,as Omalu finds the NFL (and other doctors) trying to keep his results under wraps. Aiming to express the importance that Mutiso plays in Omalu’s life, Landesman opens up their relationship in sweet sweeping notes which lack the attention to detail and focus that Omalu’s CTE studies are given,which leads to the romance always feeling one step behind. The film itself is set in a way that makes you feel like you’re going on an uphill battle.
I think writer/director Peter Landesman approached it in a way that doesn’t demonize American football, but sheds a light on the truth about it, just like what the real Dr. Omalu did. It takes awhile to get going but once it does the film is an interesting watch. What the NFL did to protect itself (and really STILL doing) is fascinating. Carrying his fake Nigerian accent in a natural manner, Will Smith gives a remarkably restrained performance as Omalu. Showing no sign of his blockbuster swagger, Smith delicately shows Omalu’s determination to research on CTE with a quiet passion,which brilliantly stands above the thunder & lightning response that Omalu receives for his discoveries. Whilst her character is not given the depth which appears to be on offer, Gugu Mbatha-Raw gives a graceful performance as Prema Mutiso,with Mbatha-Raw‘s expressive body language giving the relationship with Omalu a real warmth. While the plot is a very familiar Little Man David – Corporate Goliath story, the film is elevated by not only Smith‘s work but terrific supporting players in regretful Alec Baldwin and supportive Albert Brooks. There’s particular note of David Morse, a C level, sixth billing actor who continually shows his impressive chops. Morse plays to great effect Mike Webster, a Steelers player who goes quietly insane – pulling teeth and super gluing them back, shocking himself with a Taser – and finally succeeds in killing himself. On the whole, ‘Concussion‘ is an interesting, inspiring and timely film uplifted by Will Smith‘s award worthy performance. Peter Landesman‘s script and direction nicely balance the personal and professional aspects of Omalu’s story. The movie provides solid character development which generates empathy from the audience, while giving Movie Fans just enough of the science behind the plot to understand the story, without overindulging in jargon. Give it a watch!!
Director – Peter Landesman
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 123 minutes