Any time a film about a real-life whistleblower steps into view, the central question almost always becomes “Is it really true?” Audiences are commonly kind to a good human interest story of this sort, especially when it is spun into an entertaining drama or comedy. However, they are equally quick to disown one that stretches its claims of truth too far. Knowing that dramatization will always be a prominent ingredient in these types of films “based on a true story,” we have to settle for asking “Is it true enough?” Such is the weighty burden of “Concussion,” starring Will Smith and directed by Peter Landesman.
Smith is Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian immigrant working as a forensic pathologist in 2002 where this film’s dramatic depiction of events begins. He studies what he calls “the science of death,” conducting autopsies for his mentor Cyril Wecht (Albert Broooks) at the Allegheny County Coroner’s office in Pittsburgh and specializes in neuropathology. When local hero and former Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Steeler offensive lineman Mike Webster (David Morse) dies from a mysterious heart attack while living penniless and disabled, Omalu conducts the autopsy. The doctor finds traumatic degenerative effects in the former player’s brain more concurrent with Alzheimer’s-afflicted senior citizens and retired boxers than a man at age 50.
Dr. Omalu dives into further study as more former NFL players begin to die with similar mental conditions to Webster and names the condition Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE. His findings are published professionally in 2005 and are immediately discredited by the NFL and their medical consultant team, including Paul Reiser’s misguided Dr. Elliot Pellman and Arliss Howard’s flippant Dr. Joseph Maroon. Omalu gains unlikely support from Dr. Julian Bailes, a former Steelers team doctor and personal friend of Mike Webster. Played by Alec Baldwin, Bailes may love the game, but he cannot deny the science and feels partially responsible for his role in turning a blind eye to this potential problem. Supported by Wecht, Bailes, and at home by his fellow immigrant wife Prema (Guga Mbatha-Raw of “Belle”), Omalu pursues a course to publicize the dangers of CTE at the opposition of the NFL, lead by commissioners Paul Tagliabue (Dan Ziskie) and Roger Goodell (Luke Wilson).
On a cinematic level, the cast is on top of their game. As the headline lead, this is a very satisfying dramatic turn for Will Smith. David Morse is transformed into the visage of Mike Webster in mock archival re-creations of his playing days and his final sad collapse. Alec Baldwin wisely plays it straight, which leaves all of the tension-breaking brevity and zingers to Albert Brooks. He overcomes ingredients like a overly pushy James Newton Howard musical score to keep the proceedings generally sunny instead of grim. If the music doesn’t hit you on the nose, the constant reminders of Pittsburgh’s hallowed football culture and industry heritage will finish the job. This writer counted no fewer than 12 establishing shots of football stadiums and seven of dead former Steel City industry. Doing the math, that is one every six-and-half minutes and “Everest” cinematographer Salvatore Totino is better than that.
“Concussion” attempts to outline what caused the curtain to be pulled back on a problem that many people of power knew in the NFL and glossed over with denial. The keyword there is “attempts.” This film is written and directed by Peter Landesman, no stranger to investigating controversy in 2013’s JFK-centered “Parkland” and last year’s CIA scandal film “Kill the Messenger.” Based on Jeanne Marie Laska’s 2009 GQ piece, “Game Brain,” the makings are certainly present for a scathing expose and crucifixion of the NFL’s long-time denial, erasure, and cover-up of this major health risk. Instead of going for the corporate jugular and heightening a serious cautionary tale that rises to a systemic level, Landesman’s film goes the safe biography route with Dr. Bennet Omalu, his work, and his private life.
To its credit, the film names names and doesn’t create composite characters to hide identities. Click on any of the names above or below in this review and you’ll be taken to either their biography or a key reported backstory piece on their involvement in this investigation. Omalu, Bailes, Wecht, and former NFL player Nate Jackson were all fully participating consultants on this film. Questions remain on the accuracy of character portrayals, particularly those of deceased players like Dave Duerson.
You have to go back to that cardinal question of “Is it true enough” when judging “Concussion” and its choices as a film. While still alarming to an engaging and thought-provoking degree, the film counts as a missed opportunity. They had a knockout target and settled for the split decision.
The entire experience does work as a door opener for the uninformed that begs for further personal research. Look up the unsparing novel “League of Denial” and counterpoint CTE spokesman like Chris Nowinski. However, for “Concussion,” its specific fact-checking is coming up fairly mixed. Last year’s Sony Entertainment e-mail hacking scandal revealed that alterations and edits were made by the studio’s lawyers and powers-that-be to prevent protest from the NFL. That poor light paints “Concussion” as coming across more weak than strong.
Lesson #1: The science of chronic traumatic encephalopathy is real— Though also glossed in dramatization, this entire growing upsurge in CTE connected to brain damage caused by contact sports is scientifically accurate and supported by multiple sources other than just Omalu’s work. Science trump the beauty and grace of the sport or game. Denying CTE comes across like denying climate change. That’s why Lesson #2 is necessary next.
Lesson #2: Understand the risks as an informed participant— Opponents of CTE’s legitimacy deem the admission of health risks and the increased preventative measures (equipment, rule changes, etc.) to avoid repetitive injuries detriments (more like “wussification”) to their precious pugilistic game of football and its perception of toughness. Caring about your health over money isn’t a weakness. It’s wisdom. From these revealed studies, we are seeing current and former players signing off on donating their brains for study after their deaths in hopes of bettering CTE research. Like smoking a generation ago, more participants are learning the health risks and more measures of informed consent are starting to make their way into the sport.
Lesson #3: When there is money involved, there will always be a high stakes argument— Lightly alluded in the film yet wholly real, look no further than money as the ultimate culprit to this problem. The NFL is a $12 billion dollar-a-year juggernaut that makes and gives out colossal fortunes based on expendable players from predominantly poor backgrounds risking lifelong health for glory and money. Like tobacco companies on cancer and Catholic priests with sexual abuse, the NFL ignored the truth and denied culpability for decades. When finally called on their errors, they denied and discredited their questioners and adversaries because their pocketbook was deeper and their product was untouchable in popularity. This problem isn’t over and one movie is far from enough outcry.