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?


The Danish Girl: More Surface than Substance

Directed by Tom Hooper
Focus Films, 119 minutes, R (nudity, sexual themes)
* * *

The Danish Girl released at a time of new frankness over gender dysphoria, but it's hard to imagine it will do much to advance the cause of social acceptance. It tells the story of Lili Elbe, who in 1930 underwent what is thought to be the Western world's first male-to-female sexual reassignment surgery. It's a fascinating tale featuring luminous cinematography, but clouded by a muddy script.

Einar Wegener
Eddie Redmayne, winner of last year's Best Actor Oscar for The Theory of Everything, portrays Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe (1883-1931). As Wegener, Einar achieved minor renown as a painter in his native Denmark, as did his illustrator/painter wife, Gerda Gottlieb (1885-1940), whom he married in 1904. The Danish Girl opens in 1926, with Einar and Gerda (Alicia Vikander) living a life of lusty semi-poverty in Copenhagen. Their erotic bliss takes a dramatic U-turn when Gerda asks Einar to don women's stockings to help her finish a portrait for which her model was late. In the film, this awakens deep yearnings and doubts. When Gerda later suggests Einar dress as a woman as a lark for a party, that's all she wrote. In 1930, Einar went to Germany for operations that made him into Lili for real. In between, the film seeks to wrestle with Einar's pre-op disappearance into womanhood, the stresses on the Wegener marriage, Gerda's grudging acceptance of her husband's female identity, and her loyal (and way-too-modern) support for his decision to undergo risky medical procedures.

Einar/Lili in life
The script is a load of hogwash insofar as it purports to tell a true story. I'll get back to this, for first let's look at the film as film. Its surfaces are beautiful. Copenhagen is often colored in gray, but not Hooper's frames. The Wegeners' starkly furnished artist atelier serves to make the paintings being produced and backdrop draperies pop off the screen in lush textures and vibrant colors. Cafes are rendered with smoky ambience, ball gowns dazzle, and Lili's red hair and lipstick slash across the screen with such lurid tones as to prefigure the deep cut that will remove Einar's masculinity. Ms. Vikander is also stunning. Redmayne has gotten most of the ink, but Vikander's role is the harder of the two. Redmayne only needs to look the part, but Vikander has to demonstrate a convincing roller coaster ride of emotions. Toss in some sexual frustration, and it's pretty much the Kübler-Ross cycle of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Would that Redmayne had Vikander's range. He's exceedingly androgynous normally, so it's not that hard to cross dress and physically pass as a woman. What we don't see is a whole lot of contemplation or conflict. It's as if we go from stockings to the knife with little in-between other than a crash course in how to act female. Of that—oh dear! I think the word "fay" (and "fey") might have been invented to describe the situation. We see Redmayne aping peep-show girls, staring at his penis-tucked-away nude body in a mirror, and other such activities, but his mannerisms are more those of a swishy late 20th century gay man than they are those of an early 20th century female. He also seeks to go back and forth between Einar and Lili, but this often plays like Sibyl and Dr. Jekyll go voguing.  

Lucinda Coxon's script doesn't help matters. Viewers should be aware that the script was based on a novel by David Ebershoff, not a biography. Any time one sees the words "based on a true story," skepticism is in order. So let's set the facts straight (pun intended). Biographers believe that Einar and Gerda probably had a lavender marriage. In the film, Lili rebuffs advances from Henrik (Ben Whishaw) who recognizes her as Einar in drag. No such character existed, but fragmentary evidence suggests Einar would have welcomed such an assignation. Nor was there any such character as Hans Axgil (Matthias Schoenaerts), Einar's childhood friend/flirt and Gerda's alleged post-Einar lover. Gerda painted Lili, bur she was best known for lesbian erotica and was probably lesbian or bisexual. (She remarried after her marriage to Einar was annulled, but to an Italian pilot, not a Danish art dealer, and it was brief.)

The worst deception concerns Lili's death. In the film she dies after a second operation to fashion a vagina. Not so, nor was Gerda with him after his original penectomy. Lili had four operations, the last of which was fatal: a uterus transplant. The idea at the time was that Lili could become a biological woman capable of childbirth. We are still miles from that possibility and, today, only one born a woman can undergo what is still experimental surgery. All of this is to say that The Danish Girl pulls too many punches because it's serving a 21st century agenda, not retelling 1931 history.

Filmmakers are, of course, under no compulsion to produce historical works. My regret is that neither Hooper nor Redmayne cast enough magic to cover their ahistorical tracks. This isn't a bad film, just an average one. Given such extraordinary material, it should have been more than just a single breakout performance (Vikander) and pretty surfaces.
Rob Weir 

Gerda painting of Lili


Warhol and Mapplethorpe: Controversial People as Posthumous Conservatives?


The Wadsworth Atheneum will soon close (January 24) a wonderful show: Warhol & Mapplethorpe: Guise & Dolls. Those who don't get a chance to see it might want to check out the exhibition catalog (just $35) for its striking images, but also to muse upon how social mores change; in this case, how radicals lose their rebelliousness when social frames shift.

The Wadsworth show takes a sometimes-voyeuristic peek inside New York City's fluid gender identities scene during the 1970s and 1980s. Warhol, of course, was openly gay, sometimes flamboyantly so, whereas Mapplethorpe transitioned from bisexuality to exclusive homosexuality. Along the way, both artists explored sexual role-playing, androgyny, and the blurred lines of gender identity.

The Andy Warhol (1928-1987) side of the show demonstrates how Warhol's Polaroids of drag queens became his 1975 "Ladies and Gentlemen" series. Here we see Warhol as an artistic trickster who used the media of painting and printing to obliterate sexual identities that are clear in the photographs. Men wearing bad wigs and sporting five o'clock shadows become glam subjects once the medium changes. The show also puts Warhol himself behind the camera–Christopher Makos' "Altered Images" photos in which Warhol strikes poses in his street clothes, but wearing makeup. He stares blankly at the camera, the effect of which is to locate him somewhere in the androgynous middle between male and female. This is quintessential Warhol, an emotion-dumped ennui that makes us wonder whether he has a point or is simply too lazy to make one. It's the flip side of the perpetual question of whether Warhol was a serious artist, or just a person with enough talent to dabble at being one.

There is no such reservation over Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989), who had as much talent as anyone who has ever picked up a camera. Two highlights of the show are his images of rock-poet Patti Smith and female body-builder Lisa Lyon. There are also shots of friends in gender-bending poses and BDSM shots of himself. The latter were the images that led to the 1990 First Amendment controversy in Cincinnati. In the end, the First Amendment triumphed, but the BDSM images are hard to view even now. I wonder, actually, if it might have been wise to have skipped them–not because I wish to censor, but because the Smith/Lyon series is more in keeping with the guise theme and Mapplethorpe's homoerotic images are unambiguous. The Smith photos stun because Smith is the ultimate malleable subject, a figure that could be butch one moment, intersexual the next, and classically (even demurely) feminine when she wished to be. In like fashion, Lyon simply explodes notions about the female body. Or does she? The exhibit has what is now seems a rather overwrought piece of film in which Mapplethorpe presents Lyon as a woman who becomes a statue—but a statuesque one that becomes an archetype of female beauty.

Hearing anything conservative in all of this?  On the surface, Warhol and Mapplethorpe appear to be ahead of their time. But here's the deal: I doubt this exhibit could be shown on a college campus these days–students would be outraged at both men's take on gender. If curator Patricia Hickson is to be believed, Warhol and Mapplethorpe saw gender as "a performance," and a conscious one at that. They had little sense of or interest in gender being anything other than a piece of theater. Although each would have defended freedom of choice—Warhol passively and Mapplethorpe openly–biology was not the issue that animated them. To put it in blunt terms, each would have agreed with today's conservatives that presenting gender was a "lifestyle choice." Their "So what?" rejoinder would have led to quick parted company, but it's hard to imagine either having a lot in common with those whose guises are chalked up to gender dysphoria. In their minds, art, gender, and theater were inextricably fused.  


This is, admittedly, partly speculative on my part. Maybe each would have adjusted, even applauded expanded articulations of gender. (It's hard for me to imagine Warhol applauding anything!) The exhibit quotes Patti Smith's wonderful aphorism, "As far as I'm concerned, being any gender is a drag." That's catchy and clever, but would it satisfy those today who are deadly serious about transgender issues? Or, is the most anachronistic thing about the exhibit the innocence of approaching gender identity in an ironic, humorous, and self-absorbed fashion?

Rob Weir