Concussion (loosely) Tackles the NFL's Unspoken Problem

Directed by Peter Landesman
Columiba, 122 minutes, PG-13 (violence)
* * *

If you were buying a new car and read that a particular brand had a 28% chance of blowing up, would you buy it? If a drug caused 28% of its users to suffer such serious side effects that suicides ensued, would the FDA approve it? Now consider that we have such a product/drug going out to tens of millions of addicts every Sunday: the National Football League.

Concussion is a sports/biopic film that spotlights Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith), a rising Nigerian-born pathologist living in Pittsburgh. His immigrant dream receives a rude shock in 2002; on his dissection slab lies Mike Webster, a Hall of Fame center for the Steelers who died a broken-down bum at the age of 50. The initial verdict, cardiac arrest, made no sense to Dr. Omalu, so he decided, over the objections of several football-loving colleagues, to take a look inside Webster's brain. Dr. Omalu found intensive brain trauma, the likes of which could have easily led Webster to drugs, glue-sniffing, and antisocial behavior. Concussion tells the story of how Omalu, former Steelers team doctor Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), Dr. Joseph Maroon (Arliss Howard), and Dr. Steven DeKorsky (Eddie Marsan) wrote the pioneering study of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), which linked repeated concussions to dementia, depression, sociopathic behavior, and suicide.

More harrowing, it shows some of the lengths to which the NFL was willing to go to try to suppress CTE research. In my review of Spotlight, I suggested that the Catholic Church was the biggest crime syndicate in Boston; the NFL might qualify as the biggest mob racket in the nation. Only money can explain why CTE findings were suppressed until one of the conspiracy's doubters, former Players Association chief Dave Duerson committed suicide in 2011 and left a note saying that Dr. Omalu was right. (Junior Seau's suicide hit the front pages a year later.) At several junctures of the film, comparisons are made between the NFL and Big Tobacco's efforts in the 1990s to deny the science of smoking's health effects. Yes, we're talking that level of evil.  

Concussion is a good film. I wish I could tell you it was a great one, but that would be false. Will Smith is fabulous as Dr. Omalu–so good, that we instantly stop seeing the star and think of Smith as an African man with a lilting accent honed in British universities. His is one of the better portrayals of the pure scientist's naïveté: the blind faith that reason and science speak an objective voice immune to politics, power, and money. Smith would probably be considered a Best Actor Oscar favorite were the film better than it is.

Alas, Director Peter Landesman pulls punches he should roundhouse. The film is as much about Omalu's relationship with his eventual wife, Kenyan immigrant Prema Mutiso (Guyu Mbatha-Raw), as it is about the NFL. Ms. Mbatha-Raw is also very good, but she's central where she ought to be secondary. The film ought to be less about romance and more about dirty deeds. The attempts to quash the truth certainly took a toll on the Omalu household, but the story of Concussion should be like Spotlight–about the cover-up, not domestic life under the covers and about masses, not just individuals. Speaking of cover-ups, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell (underplayed by Luke Wilson) ought to be a central villain in the script, not a mostly silent presence. It's also rather hard not to gag over some of the overwrought snap-ons about the meaning of America through immigrant eyes. So too are obligatory references to the "beauty" and "grace" of football–sentiments completely at odds with the ugliness of Dr. Omalu's findings.

By mixing romance with science, Concussion cheapens the latter. It also allows too much wiggle room for football lovers to imagine that the NFL (or, indeed, science) has "fixed" the problem. Not so. The day I viewed the film, the Boston Globe ran a front-page story about Syracuse University quarterback A. J. Long, who–per university rules–was banned from football after suffering his third concussion. You might call that the least that can be done to address CTE, but Long and others like him have been actively recruited by other colleges willing to overlook a mere three concussions. Concussion might/should have asked hard questions about the American addiction to sports that sanction the sacrifice of young bodies for the vicarious thrills of spectators  (Why, for example, doesn't hockey ban fighting or full-body checking? Why do we watch the UFC?) It ignores the question of whether we are any better than ancient Romans signifying thumbs-down at a gladiator spectacle. Nor does it help explain why there were a scant dozen people in the movie theater on NFL Sunday. Concussion is a decent movie, but it fumbled the chance to be a landmark film. Rob Weir

Postscript for parents: See this film, especially if you have sons. Buy those sons baseball mitts and soccer balls. Football? Can you justify a one in four chance your son will suffer brain damage?

No comments: