Movie Review - Concussion

This film might just be the biggest indictment against football and the NFL to date. If anyone has payed attention to the news over the past few years regarding football concussions, then this movie will show you the origin of all that news. It focuses on the man who discovered the connection between the contact-sport and a series of deaths of professional players. Some might reject the fact that it's an issue film, one that might seem preachy but preachy from a left-wing perspective. Some might reject it because it goes against arguably the most popular and the most powerful sport in the United States. Many Americans love football, so for a film to come along and say it's bad might rankle people in general, but because the film is anchored with such heart, faith, spirit and more importantly science, the movie cannot be denied.

Will Smith stars as Dr. Bennet Omalu, a neuropathologist who is very well educated and has many credentials. He has many degrees and not all medical. He works for the Allegheny County Coroner in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He mainly performs autopsies, but he is top in his field, an undeniable expert. His broken English might indicate that he wasn't born in this country. He's actually an immigrant from Nigeria.

Because of his technique, dedication and patience, he's the source of annoyance to people who like to keep things moving and moving quickly. This film comes in the wake of a TV series on FOX about a black or African-American pathologist who is a source of annoyance for people around him. The series is Rosewood, starring Morris Chestnut.

It's such a stark contrast between these two images of black pathologists. Chestnut's portrayal is quick and snappy. He's not as conciliatory, methodical and as meditative as Smith's portrayal. This probably has to due with the two formats. Most network series aren't meant to be meditative, allowing time for something like prayer.

The autopsies in this film aren't as cold and seemingly objective as depicted in shows like Rosewood or The X-Files. The most graphic, medical operations I've seen were in the series Nip/Tuck. This film is not as graphic as that. Bennet calls corpses his patients and much in the way doctors are warm to the living, Bennet is warm to the dead.

Writer-director Peter Landesman maintains this theme or thread. He never treats the dead as statistics or just lifeless masses to be carved open. The dead are treated with equality to the living. This is even seen in the filmmaking. Every football player who died is given a scene that allows us to empathize with him. Most of whom are black men and it's rare that a major Hollywood production allows this much time to empathize with black men.

It starts however with a middle-age, white man, a real-life football player named Mike Webster aka Iron Mike, played by David Morse. His descent and ultimate death are awkward and weird. We're almost caught off-guard by it, but, as the film progresses, we see what Landesman is doing. We have to feel the desperation of these men. We have to feel their deaths. Landesman is perhaps too heavy-handed with the integration of actual NFL footage showing collisions over and over.

According to an article by Daniel Engber in Slate, the deaths attributed to football can't be proven. The connection might not be as definitive, but the science can't and shouldn't be ignored. Yet, that's what the NFL wanted to do, and in this film Julian Bailes, played by Alec Baldwin, shows Bennet how the NFL obscured facts and covered up science. It then becomes Bennet's mission to expose the truth and at all cost.

The accent and mannerisms take some time to become accustomed, but Smith really delivers a good performance, possibly his best since The Pursuit of Happyness (2006). It's his best in nearly a decade. He's his usual charming self, but what's perhaps most interesting is the contradiction of Bennet being clearly a man of science as well as a man of faith.

In the breath of one scene, Bennet says, "God did not intend for us to play football." It's a powerful statement, but he then proceeds to lay out a clear and concise argument, based on logic and scientific evidence. Later, the woman whom he meets at church, Prema, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Beyond the Lights and Belle), reinforces this idea of the divine, but if there's any religion on display here, it's the religion of science.

Inherent in Landesman's screenplay, which is based on the GQ magazine article by Jeanne Marie Laskas, there is this idea of Americanism. There of course is an irony in an immigrant showing us American values better than we show ourselves. Yet, this immigrant keeps reinforcing the value of truth, as opposed to larger forces that want to live in the bliss of ignorance.

However, the final shot is one of the most haunting things. It's a shot meant to scare parents and as a non-parent I was scared or at least anxious. It's a shot that underscores the notion that truth might not be enough to save the day, and, despite the efforts, the harrowing efforts by Bennet Omalu, linking CTE to football, the power and prevalence of the sport remains, so even if it isn't causing deaths, it is causing serious damage and maybe stopping it would require a fundamental change to the sport itself or maybe to our culture that seems to love football more than anything else.

Five Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for thematic material including some disturbing images, and language.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 3 mins.


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