Film Review: Concussion

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“Concussion” is a movie that the NFL doesn’t want you to see, because the film goes at the NFL’s attempts to hide and diminish the issue of head injuries. Does it go far enough?

Every few years or so, we are presented with a film that attempts to take on major corporations and issues in “hard hitting” fashion.  Concussion is that movie — sort of.   Concussion’s director Peter Landesman attempts to go after the NFL for their negligence and dismissive attitude towards a deadly condition that goes seemingly un-diagnosed until it’s too late for those affected.

In this movie, Dr. Bennet Omalu, who is portrayed by Will Smith, charts the diagnosis of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE  and fights to force the NFL to publicly acknowledge the truth of his discovery in order to help address the issue head on — (no pun intended).

“Concussion” presents a difficult issue through a compelling, upstanding yet simple “ordinary man turned hero” concept that I have seen utilized before in other similar films. The one that most notably comes to mind for me is “The Insider” by Michael Mann.  A perfect comparison to everything that “Concussion” is and tries to be.

In the movie and essentially in real life, Omalu is the Nigerian-American pathologist who, while working in the Allegheny County coroner’s office in 2002, performed an autopsy on former Pittsburgh Steelers’ center Mike Webster.  Webster had suffered an impossibly dark turn down what we now know to be an extreme state of depression.  His suffering ended when he suddenly dropped dead at age 50.  Incredibly perplexed by Webster’s disturbing and dark behavior and the seemingly inexplicable cause of his death, Dr. Omalu began studying Webster’s brain, probing its mysteries for a potential answer.  Webster’s initial and official cause of death was Cardiac Arrest.

Will Smith plays Dr Omalu Bennett, a forensic pathologist who discovered Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)

Will Smith plays Dr Omalu Bennett, a forensic pathologist who discovered Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE)

Splotches labeled “Tau proteins” and a progressive degenerative brain disease is essentially what Dr. Omalu discovered.  He’d also discovers that an accumulation of tau proteins had done a terrifying number on Webster’s brain forcing Omalu to officially diagnose Webster with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE.

Bennet ultimately discovers that with each collision, the brain releases a protein around the injured area to heal it. But, it’s essentially a catch-22 as he also discovers that repeated injuries result in a build-up of the tau protein big enough to ultimately degrade the brain instead of heal it.  The end result is pain, double vision, hearing voices, serious depression, anger and aggression.

Discovering this disease starts a wave of events that affects both Omalu’s personal and professional life.  He gets push back from every direction and finds that going up against a corporation that essentially “owns the day of the week” sounded better in theory.

I was pleasantly surprised at how excellent a job  Landesman does of intensely focusing on the struggles and dark emotions these former players dealt with in suffering from this disease.

At times, it’s hard to watch what these former players suffered through without cringing and allowing the emotion to slightly overwhelm you.  Former NFL players Dave Duerson, Andre Waters and Justin Strzelczyk were all briefly portrayed in the movie and each actor that portrayed them did an excellent job of demonstrating the effects of this deadly disease.   Landesman did an excellent job of forcing the audience to emotionally gravitate towards each character suffering.  While watching the scenes, it was difficult for me at times to not want to reach out and “help” these players that appeared to be pleading for help through their dark struggles.

From a purely cinematic standpoint, the science within the movie was consistent, detailed and seemingly as logical as I expected it to be.  The science behind learning about the discovery of the disease and the disease itself was compelling and Landesman did an excellent job of painting a detailed and immensely descriptive picture for the audience.  One quote from Will’s character that stood out the most was when he was first attempting to “sell” the discovery to his “colleagues” and he attempted to paint a detailed and descriptive picture of what had happened to Webster’s brain:

"Concussion" was intense and immensely emotional but didn't hit the NFL hard enough for me.

“Concussion” was intense and immensely emotional but didn’t hit the NFL hard enough for me.

“……70,000 blows to the head from the time that he was a little boy to the time he was a college man, culminating into an eighteen professional career…….The tangles invading and strangling his mind from the inside out like poring wet concrete down kitchen pipes as it hardens, it chokes the brain leaving him unrecognizable, even to himself.”

Dr Omalu’s hypothesis – The consistent head trauma most football players experience over their entire playing careers, does indeed take a horrific toll on their brains, even when that trauma doesn’t produce immediate evidence.  

Truly compelling and eye opening stuff that was slightly emotionally difficult to listen to and learn.  Will does an amazing job as Dr. Omalu and his intense portrayal at times, forces you to truly feel the passion and emotion that the real Dr. Omalu likely exhibited while fighting this difficult battle to be heard the way he truly felt he needed to.  Steelers physician Dr. Julian Bailes (played by Alec Baldwin) is a reluctant crusader and accomplice (partly, it’s implied, due to the guilt he feels for having “aided and abetted” players’ injuries for so many years), plays an immensely key role in the entire story and Baldwin sells the role perfectly.

As great a job the actors did with their roles and as great a job Landesman did in constructing such an important film, I felt it could’ve hit the NFL harder than it did.  At times, it seems like it rushes or even lightly brushes over the NFL’s reckless role and position in what appears to be dangerous and deadly negligence on their part through the years after Omalu’s discovery is published.  Concussion delivers a blow of its own to film lovers like myself, especially those who love football but throws softballs at the head of the NFL.

Fans will come away from this film with a new found respect for the athletes of the NFL.  NFL players should come away from this film seriously reevaluating everything and the NFL should come away from this film immensely thankful that Sony went as soft on them as they did.  It’s a compelling movie, with compelling performances and intense scenes but not enough went into it to make this movie the game changing movie I thought it could be when I initially heard about it.

Despite its shortfalls, it’s still excellently constructed and the performances are impressive. I think it is a film that the entire family needs to see, especially young men that are considering playing football or that are already engaged in football activities.


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