Film Review: Concussion

by Keith Hill

Rated M. Starring Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Morse. Directed by Peter Landesman.

How do you take on a corporation that owns a day of the week? That’s the question confronting Dr Bennet Omalu (Smith) in the controversial true story of Concussion.

Omalu is a forensic pathologist in the Allegheny County coroner’s office in Pennsylvania. Omalu is quiet, conscientious, and, as a doctor with more degrees than a thermometer, he’s extremely good at his job. When the body of ‘Iron’ Mike Webster (Morse), an NFL Hall of Fame centre for the Pittsburgh Steelers lands on his table, Omalu is initially puzzled. How does a man like Webster go from peak physical fitness, to psychologically broken and homeless, dying in the back of his pickup truck at the age of 50? Determined to find the cause, Omalu pays out of his own pocket to have Webster’s brain tested, and in doing so opens Pandora’s Box.

Webster’s brain turns out to have a level of deterioration on par with a 90-year-old Alzheimer’s patient, a result, Omalu determines, of around 70,000 blows to the head received over an 18 year professional football career. Omalu dubs the condition chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), and publishes his findings in a medical journal. Omalu finds an ally in his fight in former Steelers team doctor, and neurologist Julian Bailes (Baldwin), a man out for redemption after sending concussed players back onto the field throughout his career. However, as a Nigerian immigrant taking on America’s favourite pastime, Omalu becomes a social pariah, the target of threats against himself and his wife Prema (Mbatha-Raw), and the object of a smear campaign waged by the NFL itself, intent on covering itself and protecting its bottom line.

It’s a compelling story, but let down by a script that isn’t quite as focussed as it could be. Any time some tension starts to build, it gets interrupted by the developing love story between Omalu and Prema, or overly long, cliche-filled dialogue. While the question of whether Will Smith deserved an Oscar nomination for the role is a contentious one, his performance undoubtedly brings a lot to Concussion. He manages to maintain a Nigerian accent through the film in a way that doesn’t distract from the performance, and he portrays Omalu as a man driven by his sense of duty as a doctor, and as a man of faith committed to the truth, wherever it may lead him.

What’s scary about Concussion (apart from vision of NFL highlight reels showing big hits juxtaposed with footage of pee-wee footballers inflicting the same head blows on one another) is the lengths that the NFL will go to in order to deny the truth and protect its bottom line. Rather than embrace Omalu’s research and endeavour to protect its players, the NFL launches a smear campaign against Omalu and strenuously denies his findings.

But that shouldn’t surprise us. To do so is an expression of part of our human nature, a self-justifying and self-preserving response that happens when the light of truth has been shone on our dark deeds. Jesus says in John 3.20–21:

For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out by God.

Omalu saw his quest for the truth as a task given to him by God; a God of truth, who hates sinful deeds done in darkness. But like his saviour, he comes face to face with a world that loves to hide the darkness rather than the light.

The Verdict: Watching Concussion on the same day as Super Bowl 50 made for an incredibly jarring experience. Despite some great performances and a controversial story, Concussion is ultimately let down by a lack of tension and overly preachy tone. 3.5/5

Concussion will be released in Australian cinemas on Thursday February 18th, and in the UK on Friday, February 12th. It is currently screening in the USA.

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