Film Review: 'Concussion'
There has been a constantly growing concern in America for the long-term health and safety of football players in the NFL. It’s a conversation we wouldn’t be having were it not for the fearless resolve of forensic neuropathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu, who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the brains of deceased NFL players. Catalogued in a GQ article by Jeanne Marie Laskas (and from which the film is adapted) Omalu was met with scare tactics from the NFL to intimidate him into retreat. Omalu did not buckle.
Over a decade later, and we have Concussion, the Peter Landesman-directed and Will Smith-led dramatic retelling of Omalu’s war with the NFL. Sporting an impeccable West African accent, Smith perfectly portrays Omalu as a sincere “artist” of a pathologist at a Pittsburgh coroner’s office who pleads to his deceased patients for their help in uncovering their cause of death. His artsy approach irks coworkers – particularly superior Daniel Sullivan (Mike O’Malley) and Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), although Wecht at least sympathetic – but his brilliance makes up for his quirkiness
Where Omalu meets his destiny is in the untimely death of Pittsburgh Steelers legend "Iron" Mike Webster (David Morse). His brain is discovered by Omalu to have been ruined by CTE as a result of a long and violent football career. After publishing his findings, Omalu is met with staunch fury by the NFL in an attempt to subdue his research and undermine his character.
It’s an incredible battle that Omalu cannot fight alone; luckily, neurosurgeon and former Steelers team doctor Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin) joins Omalu’s side in the fight. Two are met with near-universal scorn, hatred, and disdain from every corner of the league: a cultural and institutional power in the country Omalu has idolized since his childhood in Nigeria.
Yet Concussion is about so much more than a medical discovery and the subsequent corporate backlash. Omalu meets his future wife Prema Mutiso (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) - a fellow immigrant from Africa - and the two feverishly pursue the American dream. Concussion is equally about striving to be an ideal, picturesque American, yet in doing so, Omalu steps on the toes of one of America’s biggest cultural institutions, even if it means doing so out of genuine concern for its players. And with NFL game footage interspersed throughout showing off bone-shattering hits, the danger Omalu speaks off shows itself in full, violent force.
All of this is wrapped up by Landesman in a scientific and legal drama that looks beautiful, paces perfectly, and features one of Smith's greatest performances of his career. Concussion is not only an incredibly enjoyable film, but also a thought-provoking one: how do you feel about the health risks associated with the most popular sport in America?
Omalu has already answered the question, but the film in turn asks us, the audience: what are you going to do about it?
Written by Peter Landesman (screenplay) and Jeanne Marie Laskas (GQ article).
Directed by Peter Landesman.
Starring Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, and Albert Brooks.