“Concussion,” the true story of Dr. Bennet Omalu’s crusade to bring to light the dangers of repeated head traumas to football players, is about as subtle as a kick in the head, but it does mean well. Will Smith plays Omalu, a quiet-spoken, sensitive immigrant from Nigeria (Smith nails the accent without calling undue attention to it), who collects advanced degrees like baseball cards or comic books. A pathologist in the Pittsburgh coroner’s office, he talks to the bodies he autopsies before he begins the gruesome but necessary procedures of post-mortem examinations.
Omalu owns a TV because “in this country you own a TV,” though he seldom watches it, and knows virtually nothing about pro football.When local NFL hero Mike Webster dies in his fifties, homeless and apparently insane, Omalu is unfamiliar with him, although the story is big local news. He is, however, puzzled and intrigued as to how an otherwise healthy man so young could have suffered such a severe and sudden psychological breakdown and orders a battery of tests on his brain, even if he has to pay for them out of pocket.
What he finds startles him – Webster suffered from a condition, undetectable on a CT scan, that in many ways mimics Alzheimer’s Disease. He names the disorder chronic traumatic encephalopathy, and suspects it is the result repeated head collisions during a football player’s career. And, naively, he honestly thinks the NFL will welcome his findings and use them as a basis to make the game safer.
Not so much, as it turns out. Before long Omalu is being threatened professionally and personally, as, wait for it, the NFL apparently cares more about its profits than its players. This is gripping stuff, a medical mystery intertwined with a high-level cover-up reminiscent of “All the President’s Men” or “Silkwood.”
If Omalu emerges as an almost saintly character, the NFL comes off pretty much like the Evil Empire in “Star Wars.” Venal, vindictive and mean-spirited, it’s run by men whose Wall Street suits can’t camouflage the fact that they’re still just neanderthal, high school bullies looking for a math nerd to whip a towel off of. Luke Wilson plays Commissioner Roger Goodell as a double-talking, mealy-mouthed, used car salesmen in a few scenes, giving on-camera, public record (and therefore litigation-proof) statements.
The movie details the travails of players like Justin Strzelczyk (Matthew Willig) and Dave Duerson (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who died, often at their own hands, while suffering from CTE, like the beginnings of an epidemic. Some of the dialogue, to the effect that “we won’t have to wait for the next one” seems to hail from a low-budget vampire movie, but there’s genuine and undeniable tragedy in seeing macho players who seemed indestructible on the field left weak, frightened and confused off it. Despite some obligatory rhapsodizing about the beauty and grace of the game, archival footage of hit after hit, NFL games interspersed with Pop Warner, accompanied by unintentionally ironic sportscaster babble, is cringeworthy.
Unfortunately, writer/director Peter Landesman (“Parkland”) doesn’t have a great handle on the pacing. The movie’s efforts to dramatize Omalu’s personal life are well-acted, but momentum-halting. More’s the pity there, as Gugu Mbatha-Raw, plays Omalu’s girlfriend, and eventual wife, Prema, with charm and sincerity. Unfortunately, the courtship tends to derail the medical mystery, which is where “Concussion” is at its best.
“Concussion” opens in theaters across the Capital District on Friday, December 25th, including: the Regal Cinemas Colonie Center Stadium 13 & RPX, the Regal Cinemas Crossgates Stadium 18 & IMAX, the Bow Tie Cinemas Movieland 6 in Schenectady, the Regal Cinemas Clifton Park Stadium 10 & RPX, the Regal Cinemas East Greenbush 8 and the Rotterdam Square Cinema.