Judy Thorburn's Movie Reviews
Concussion | Will Smith, Albert Brooks, David Morse, Alec Baldwin, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Luke Wilson, Paul Reiser | Review
- Category: Judy Thorburn
- Published on 25 December 2015
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By now, it is a well known fact that football players have a high risk of incurring concussions and even more devastating brain injuries due to repetitive blows to their heads while playing the game. It has has been the subject of recent news reports and what is in the works to develop special helmets that soften the blow.
That said, Concussion is a timely movie, written and directed by Peter Landesman based on the true story of a doctor that discovered the truth behind the brain trauma found in deceased athletes who paid a terrible price and how he was forced to deal with negative repercussions from the NFL, that were in denial.
Will Smith delivers a strong, beautifully understated performance, perhaps his best ever, as the brilliant Dr. Bennett Omalu, a Nigerian born forensic pathologist working in the county coroner's office in Pittsburgh, who has his own unique method of performing autopsies. The good doctor talks to the dead to find out what happened to them, with the belief that he can't do it alone.
After Omalu is assigned to autopsy the body of 50 year old “Iron” Mike Webster” (an almost unrecognizable, underrated David Morse) the retired, former center for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who was suffering from dementia, hearing voices, self mutilating, homeless, and sleeping in his car, no visible abnormalities show up on his brain or in CT scans. Unable to leave it alone, Omalu uses his own money to pay for expensive testing of brain matter to find answers. Meanwhile, after watching video of football games and noticing that players are continually bashing heads, he to the conclusion that “God did not intend for us to play football” since, unlike a woodpecker or horned sheep, the human anatomy does not have a protective shield. Omalu determines that in Webster's 18 year career, he must have suffered more than 70,000 blows to the head, which was like being hit over and over again by a sledgehammer.
As he looks into the deaths of other players, Omalu identifies a new medical condition of the brain he names CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) that proves to be alarmingly widespread as more and more victims add up including players Justin Strzelczyk (Matthew Willig) and Dave Duerson (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who lost their lives while suffering from CTE. Rather than being hailed for his discovery, Omalu's published findings are dismissed by the The NFL who try to bury the evidence and, instead, label him a fraud.
The person who does become Omalu's staunch ally and helps bolster his credibility and publicize the truth is neurosurgeon, Dr. Julian Bailes (a superb Alec Baldwin) the former Stealers team doctor.
Albert Brooks is excellent as Dr. Cyril Wecht, Omalu's supportive boss and mentor. Gugu Mbatha Raw does a fine job as Prema the lovely, smart and strong woman that Omalu falls in love with and becomes his wife not long after the newly arrived nurse from Nairobi rents a room in his home. She is at his side telling not to give up even when the cards seem stacked against him. Luke Wilson is in a couple of quick scenes as league commissioner Roger Goodell, but trust me, if you blink you will miss him.
In spite of some minor narrative flaws, Concussion is a compelling drama that has a lot to say about the most powerful sport in America, beloved by millions of fans, and the impact of Dr. Omalu's findings that many did not want to accept as truth, due to willful ignorance.
In a recent TV interview, the real life doctor insisted he did not want to take down America's favorite past time; just to raise the safety standards. As an immigrant who loves America, it was his wish to be accepted and looked up to rather than thought of as an outsider and quack.
Audiences don't have to be hit over the head to come to the conclusion that in his effort to save lives, Dr.Bennett Omalu should be considered an American hero.