Concussion, director Peter Landesman’s powerful and disturbing film, premiered on December 25, 2015, right near the end of the regular National Football League season and before the January playoff schedule. The timing could not have been more appropriate.
Starring Will Smith as Nigerian born pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu, the film is based on the true story of the man’s attempt to get the NFL to face the reality of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the pernicious brain damage that many of its players suffer during careers of multiple hard knocks.
Based on Jeanne Marie Laskas’s GQ article “Game Brain,” Concussion pulls no punches as it uses real names and situations and chronicles the ordeal of Dr. Omalu, who not only suffers professionally but also personally in his quest to reveal to the world what the NFL was doing its best to keep under wraps.
Set in Pittsburgh, perhaps an American city with an identity more aligned with its football team (The Steelers) than any other, Omalu works in the County Coroner’s Office and starts studying the case of Mike Webster (David Morse), a Hall of Fame player who ended up living and dying in his car. As Omalu examines his brain, he finds severe injury to it and then, after watching videos of NFL games, makes the connection that players are like soldiers on the front lines of a war that is very damaging to their heads.
Smith plays Omalu with deliberately controlled mannerisms and an impressive Nigerian accent; it is a tempered, multivalent performance that builds as the rising action takes us through one player after another that is fighting with sound and fury against a condition that is baffling and leaves them feeling as if their efforts signify nothing.
After being asked to help adjust a young immigrant woman to America, Omalu takes Prema (a lovely Gugu Mbatha-Raw) to his home and attempts to school her in how to succeed in this country. After spending so much time together, they end up falling in love and eventually marry. His relationship with Prema offers Omalu some comfort during his ordeal of battling one of the most powerful organizations in the country.
Omalu forms an alliance with former NFL neurological consultant Dr. Julian Bailes (a terrific Alec Baldwin) who used to treat Webster. Together they attempt to shed light on what is happening in the NFL. As the body count continues to grow – with more suffering players killing themselves – Omalu examines their corpses and concludes they all suffered from CTE. This sets him on a collision course with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell (Luke Wilson) and the powerful and lucrative machine that he oversees.
Concussion is an honest look at a very inconvenient truth that for too long was overlooked by the NFL. Smith does an amazing job in what is probably his best and most understated performance in films. He conveys Omalu’s zeal to make change for the better but also his fear that he has stepped into dark waters that might threaten to sink his professional and personal life.
The film comes during a time when the NFL would like the conversation to be about the Super Bowl and not about the ugly truth that haunts every professional gridiron in the country. A recently released NFL report reveals that in 2015 there were 271 reported concussions – an increase from 206 reported in 2014 – and the frightening thing about this is the “reported” part.
We cannot imagine how many more go unreported by players, but NY Jets fans will well remember that wide receiver Brandon Marshall revealed last year that he played with a serious concussion in the past because he was in a contract year. In a letter addressed to Dr. Omalu Marshall wrote:
If I missed games, my value would suffer, and I didn't want to lose the security I was so close to having for me and my family. So I played through it, and I promised my wife I would never do that again. But for two weeks, I was woozy. I couldn't close my eyes without losing my balance. I definitely had suffered a concussion and kept playing like many other players.
So we don’t know how many players just like Marshall are out there, but we do know CTE is a real affliction that will continue to affect NFL players unless the league’s culture changes dramatically. While the NFL under Goodell has come a long way in recognizing CTE as a reality, the frightening thing is that players like Marshall may suffer a concussion and keep on going for whatever personal reasons – and this decision could end up costing them their lives.
Concussion is not just a great film with a solid lead actor in Smith, it is also a wake-up call for the NFL, its players, and its fans. CTE is like a plague affecting professional football players in this country. Concussion sends a resounding message that the NFL and its players have to know and face the truth about the condition and that it can no longer be business as usual, no matter how inconvenient that is for all involved.
Photo credits: Sony Pictures