2015, PG-13, 123 mins.
2015, PG-13, 123 mins.
Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu / Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Prema Mutiso / Luke Wilson as Roger Goodell / Alec Baldwin as Dr. Julian Bailes / Bitsie Tulloch as Keana Strzelczyk / Stephen Moyer as Dr. Ron Hamilton / Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Dave Duerson / Eddie Marsan as Dr. Steven DeKosky / David Morse as Mike Webster / Albert Brooks as Dr. Cyril Wecht / Matthew Willig as Justin Strzelczyk / Richard T. Jones as Andre Waters / Hill Harper as Christopher Jones / Mike O'Malley as Daniel Sullivan
Directed by Peter Landesman / Written by Peter Landesman, based on the GQ article "Game Brain" by Jeanne Marie Laskas
It’s sort of amazing to consider that in our modern technologically advanced era that the human brain remains largely a mystery to medical science.
doubting that assertion needs to consider the fact that properly
diagnosing concussions – and treating them as severe injuries to the
brain with potentially life altering consequences to those affected - is a
relatively new phenomenon. When
it comes to the sporting world, concussion diagnosis was hopelessly in the
dark ages until very recently, but the most damning thing regarding pro
leagues like the NFL is that there has been a perpetual and sustained
attitude of denial regarding how devastating sustaining such an injury can
is a new fact based sports medical drama – based on the 2009 GQ expose
GAME BRAIN by Jeanne Marie Laskas – that deals with Nigerian born
forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu that took it largely upon himself to
go head-to-head with one of the most powerful sports organizations in the
world in accusing them of suppressing facts regarding the horrendous
effects that concussions have had on NFL football players.
The persistent and widely held theory in the league for decades was
that getting your “bell rung” during a big hit was all part of the
job, and something that could easily be dealt with and treated with some
pain killers on the bench in-between plays. In fact, what Omalu discovered – through his own tired and
dedicated research, done mostly in his spare time and with his own
financial banking – was CTE, or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a
progressive degenerative disease of the brain that’s caused by ample
brain injuries. When retired
NFL football players who suffered from concussions during their careers
began mysteriously turning up in body bags at young ages – many of which
were suicides – it sprung Omalu into action…especially when the NFL
egregiously turned a blind eye.
of the league’s golden boys that died under such tragic circumstances
was Mike Webster (played in the film by David Morse), once seen as one of the
greatest stars in Steelers history. As
CONCUSSION opens we see this former gladiatorial titan of the turf reduced to
an incoherent, perpetually paranoid, and disturbed man that has no idea
what is happening to his concussed brain. When Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) hears of this story it
convinces him to perform an autopsy of Webster, mostly out of scientific
curiosity as to why a former athlete died so early in life.
He gets the okay from his boss, Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks),
despite the fact that he has warned Bennet numerous times to hold back on
his unorthodox pathology methods. Nevertheless,
Cyril likes and respects the kindly doctor, and gives in to his many
request to engage in further research as to what has not only happened to
Webster, but many other pro football players that begin turning up dead in his
makes progress during his arduous and long studies, during which time he
discovers the aforementioned disease that’s tied to the concussion
victims, which most likely led to their deaths.
This leads to the doctor publishing his findings in a medical
journal, which obviously infuriates the upper brass of the NFL, making
Bennet’s personal life a newfound living hell.
There is an immediate resistance to his findings from the league,
and when the NFL digs deep into its considerable financial coiffures to
discredit his work, Bennet realizes the severity of – as his boss puts
it – “Going to war with a corporation that owns a day of the week.”
Years pass and the NFL continues their stance on denying Bennet’s
findings, but he manages to find an ally in the form of a former Steelers
team physician (Alec Baldwin) that believes in Bennet’s work and wants
to make a last ditch attempt to get the medical world on their side to
force the NFL to make changes for the better.
with a relatively assured and focused hand by Peter Landesman (PARKLAND),
CONCUSSION is an utterly fascinating two hours, especially considering
that the film is bogged down in a lot of medical jargon regarding
meticulous brain research. The
film simmers to a boil in the manner that a good legal/detective thriller
and underdog sports drama does, featuring an unshakeable and valiant minded
hero going toe-to-toe in a David and Goliath battle with a seemingly
insurmountable opponent because…it’s the right thing to do.
The film wisely understands that the actual research that Bennet
conducted didn’t quickly culminate in easy answers.
What Bennet did took time, effort, and patience, made all the more
difficult because he was trying to find causal similarities in multiple
patients during a time when no one else was really attempting such
research. As a chronicle of a
lone and noble-minded crusader going up against a corrupt organization in
search of the truth, CONCUSSION is perpetually enthralling.
Smith gives arguably his least, shall I say it, Will Smithy performance as
Bennet, especially for how he curtails his usual larger-than-life
on-screen charisma and cocky charm and instead subtly and plausibly
inhabits the mind and body of a kind, soft spoken, modest, but
intrinsically brilliant man that quietly, yet rigorously, wants to right a
serious wrong. Not only does
he employ a credible Nigerian accent for the role, but he modulates his
performance to reveal a compellingly multi-faceted immigrant that believes
in the power of the American Dream, yet simultaneously hates how it has
become perverted by organizations that lust for power and profits. Smith has never been so quietly commanding in a film
before, and he's matched impeccably well throughout with the great Albert
Brooks, who has a tricky role of being a congenial mentor/boss figure to
Bennet that still has to be the pragmatic voice of reason in his life.
The tandem of Smith and Brooks lends a substantial amount of class
dignity to CONCUSSION.
the problem with the film, though: As an anger-filled diatribe and
rallying cry against the NFL's unspeakable levels of internal corruption,
the film doesn’t feel like it’s going on the offensive against the
league as much as it thinks it does. There are times when CONCUSSION – despite its endlessly
fascinating premise – feels like it contains a fairly routine and standard
sports/medical drama structure and never really sways away from it. There are definite times when the film appears like it’s
really going in for the kill to mercilessly attack the NFL and the very
uneasy essence of contact sports as a whole, but it instead rather
hesitantly holds back. Then there are
some other subplots sandwiched into the larger story than never feel like
significant entities, like the courtship and romance between Bennet and a
fellow African immigrant (played well by Gugu Mbatha-Raw); it’s sweetly
handled and the two stars have ample chemistry on screen, but it never
really factors significantly into the larger arc of the story.
Still, the powerful and prevailing themes of CONCUSSION are undeniably gripping and somewhat haunting. The NFL, like big tobacco companies, have been engaging in misinformation campaigns about concussions and brain diseases for far too long, and at the very expense of ruining many past players and their families…and ones that have helped make the league profitable during their playing years. The NFL’s attempts to protect profits over the very livelihoods of their stars is shameful, and CONCUSSION, despite its faults, is a fairly important film about a very important subject, anchored by a soulful performance by Will Smith that might be his on-screen work. Any film that spurs debate about the safety of human lives in a sport that has executives that have so recklessly failed to engage in the debate is worthwhile in my books. CONCUSSION may not have any specific answers, but it at least asks audiences members to look at the heart of a very dicey problem in an effort to shift public opinion towards the practices of the most popular sports league in North America.
That makes this film gutsier than most.