“Tell the truth”
As of September of 2015 it was reported that 87 former NFL players tested positive for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) out of the 91 deceased men researchers at Boston University autopsied. That’s almost 96%. Their study revealed that 79% ofall players (professionally, semi-professionally, or college/high school athletes) examined had it—damning numbers not to be ignored and yet the NFL did for many, many years. How long and what exact details they denied, we may never know. Settlements are funny that way. It’s hardly surprising, with the amount of money this “non-profit” earns, that they’d fight to keep guys “jacking” each other up without remorse or a moral obligation to tell them what’s happening. What is, however, is that they continued doing so as late as 2011.
One could forgive them if they took the ailment’s discovery serious when Nigerian immigrant and multiple-doctorate holding pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) named it in 2002. But as writer/director Peter Landesman‘s (adapted from Jeanne Marie Laskas‘ GQ article “Game Brain”) Concussionexplains it, their willful ignorance was criminal. I don’t know how Sony received the NFL’s permission to use team logos for a film that shines the league in such a horrifying light, but they did. You almost have to believe Roger Goodell’s (played by Luke Wilson) lawyers told him refusing to do so would only make matters worse. The result is a film that puts the full onus of this systemic tragedy on the NFL’s executive committee and “yes-man” doctorial staff exactly as it should.
It’s a great story with a charismatic, wholesome, intelligent man in Omalu playing David against a corrupt system’s Goliath. Landesman wonderfully gives us all the exposition into his life we need via a death row court case wherein the doctor’s curiosity found an innocent man where the state blindly saw guilt. This is Bennet Omalu: someone with respect for his job, oath, and patients—even if the majority of the latter are already deceased. We can read into his speaking to cadavers as though asking their spirits to help find the truth as humorous or frustrating like morgue director Daniel Sullivan (Mike O’Malley as the one-note bigot beforeOmalu took a stand against America’s sport), or as the synergistic strength between religion and science it is for him.
Our process of choosing comes with many plot clichés that do ultimately harm an otherwise excellent film. Besides O’Malley’s Sullivan being given no payoff and in fact disappearing after constantly busting Omalu’s chops—once was enough—there’s also love interest and steading hand Prema Mutiso (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). It’s a shame when a great actor is wasted in a thankless role, but that’s exactly what’s happened here. She’s clumsily introduced as a newcomer to America in need of a room seconds after Omalu’s father figure/boss Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks) states how he needs a woman to feel the touch of life. And she chastises Omalu by stating that she was a nurse in Nigeria, but that revelation goes nowhere once her character settles into emotionally sage wife.
It’s understandable in the context of the story Landesman’s telling, though. I get that. Here’s a man of God who has discovered something no one else had with science. Someone who dug deep and found irrefutable evidence that made those at the top of their scientific field unable to prove him wrong. Landesman wants to provide us a tale of American ideals through a man who dreamt his whole life of becoming an American and he does so with precision, Smith with grace. Does it get heavy-handed once Prema waxes on about fate and destiny putting retired Steeler Mike Webster (a fantastic David Morse) in Bennet’s hands? Yes. But these are real people and religion did play a major role in their lives. So we deal with it.
There’s a reason Omalu’s story was adapted for cinema and it is his almost textbook rise against all odds. The very thing that makes him interesting is sadly that which makes him “common” in the annals of biopic subjects. But don’t let that inspirational through-line detract from what’s otherwise a captivating saga about a topic many people in this country care dearly about. Beyond even football, though, it’s also an exposé on the myth of masculinity. For most Omalu’s findings risked the NFL having to “tone down” the violent nature of the game—the yin to athletic artistry’s yang. So Steelers fans call him with death threats because he’s “vaginizing” the game. This ignorance and brutish rage may be the NFL’s worst by-product. Smart can be just as sexy.
The rub is that this isn’t Omalu’s goal at all. He isn’t trying to ruin the game; he doesn’t even like it or care to learn about it other than how his science is affected. His fight to force the NFL to acknowledge CTE after one casualty becomes two—two becoming five on the way to the aforementioned eighty-seven—is to merely supply players with transparency. If they knew the risks and did it anyway, that’s on them. We are free to make that choice. Our employers earning millions off our backs are not. This is what makes Hill Harper‘s Christopher Jones and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje‘s Dave Duerson so villainous. They don’t care. Arliss Howard‘s Dr. Maroon may be even worse because he knows he’s helping cover it up.
It also renders Omalu and Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin)—a former team doctor for the Steelers who goes turncoat despite still loving the game with all his heart because the science is there and close friends have died—heroes. But they’re not two-dimensional heroes on a quest driven by selfless motivation. This is key because it would be boring if they were. Behind the science is also a need to prove himself and redeem himself respectively. Landesman acknowledges this and gives the two a moment where it all comes out and a choice must be made to put egos aside so the truth can stand alone. The two are fantastic: Smith continuing his dramatic pedigree with teary eyes and Baldwin breathing life into a deceivingly complex man.
The rest does pale in comparison, though. Morse is a powerhouse as a man descending into madness, but I couldn’t help feeling his nuance made fellow CTE-affected players (Matthew Willig‘s Justin Strzelczyk andRichard T. Jones‘ Andre Waters) appear over-the-top. I liked Brooks’ screw-the-system attitude, but even he was there as a cheerleader much like Gugu to really prove anything more. Regardless, there’s enough to love aboutConcussion and at the top of that list is its honesty in showing how wrong the NFL was and to a point still is. If nothing else the story is out there now to be researched and expanded upon. Players now know what their million dollar salaries cost and if they still want to play, we’ll continue to cheer.
Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 123 minutes | Release Date: December 25th, 2015 (USA)
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Director(s): Peter Landesman
Writer(s): Peter Landesman / Jeanne Marie Laskas (GQ article “Game Brain”)