“Nothing hits harder than the truth”
Director: Peter Landesman
Cast: Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Albert Brooks
Synopsis: In Pittsburgh, accomplished pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu uncovers the truth about brain damage in football players who suffer repeated concussions in the course of normal play.
The human brain floats in a fluid within the confines of the skull, which is designed to protect it from external blows, but which also forms a solid wall against which the brain can impact at moments of trauma. If we cared to think about that, common sense should tell us that repeated trauma carries a substantial risk of causing some kind of permanent serious damage, and it doesn’t take a great leap of deduction to realise that an American Football player, who subjects himself to numerous blows to the head each time he takes to the field, is at particular risk. Peter Landesman’s Concussion chronicles the steps which led to this realisation while stopping short of expressly stating that the NFL was fully aware of the dangers to their players before an immigrant Nigerian pathologist’s controversial paper brought the matter to public attention. There are reasons for this which I’ll come to later in this review.
The origins of the revelation are found in the lab of coroner’s pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith – Winter’s Tale, Focus), a Nigerian immigrant who is somewhat naïve about the American way of life, but who is keen to earn his US citizenship, nonetheless. Omalu is a highly intelligent man, meticulous and articulate, whose unorthodox methods – before performing autopsies, he talks to his ‘patients’ to ask them for his help in determining the cause of their death – attract, at best, the bemusement of his colleagues and, at worst, their outright hostility. When Omalu examines the body of Mike Webster (David Morse – The Green Mile, World War Z), a former star football player who succumbed to dementia in his 50s, he is surprised to discover none of the usual signs of the affliction in the man’s brain. Omalu is so intrigued by this that he pays for further studies into the cause of death after his boss refuses to authorise a state-funded investigation and comes to the conclusion that Webster’s condition was a result of all those bone-crunching blows to the head he received while playing football. When he publishes his paper on the subject, however, Omalu is shocked to find himself becoming a hate figure, and the subject of a smear campaign orchestrated by the NFL.
American football is something of a religion in the United States – “The NFL owns a day of the week,” explains Omalu’s boss, “The same day the church used to own. Now it’s theirs.” – and, as with all religions, its most zealous advocates have a zero tolerance towards anyone or anything that threatens or criticises the object of their devotion. Rather than accept any perceived threat to their game, they choose to ignore, or trivialise, the fact that men risk permanent brain damage each time they run out on the field to provide their fans with some Sunday afternoon entertainment. It’s also big business, creating the kind of revenue any organisation will go to great lengths to protect. So when one considers that a substantial proportion of the US population will instinctively avoid the picture because of their devotion to the sport, the fact that Concussion was made at all is, therefore, somewhat more surprising than the vendetta waged against Omalu following the publication of his paper. But there’s a reason Concussion falls short of outright condemnation of the NFL. The production company behind the film is Sony, whose emails revealing that scenes were deleted to ‘take most of the bite out of’ the film, and that its President of Domestic Marketing informed executives that “We’ll develop messaging with the help of NFL consultant to tell a dramatic story rather than kicking the hornet’s nest,” came to light following the infamous hacking of their files in 2015. Essentially, then, the film’s makers collaborated with those they were seeking to condemn in order to tell their story.
Although Concussion is undeniably compromised by the revelation that it is pulling its punches, it still possesses enough power to provide its audience with a fairly forthright indictment of the sport’s administrators. Landesman, who also wrote the screenplay, films much of it through a steely blue filter to emphasise the cold harshness and quiet horror that can be found in a world which the brilliant but naïve Omalu had believed was the proverbial land of milk and honey. Will Smith, playing against type and employing an initially distracting Nigerian accent, gives a strong performance as the doctor, proving once again that he is capable of stepping outside of the hip, jive-talking persona with which he is still identified. He’s supported by an able cast which includes Alec Baldwin (The Departed, It’s Complicated) as a doctor for the Pittsburgh Steelers whose conscience compels him to help the beleaguered Omalu at the potential cost of his own career, British actor Eddie Marsan (Smith’s nemesis in Hancock) as an eminent scientist who co-authors Omalu’s controversial paper, and an under-used Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Odd Thomas) as his rather perfunctory love interest.
Concussion strays dangerously close to mushy melodrama in its final act due to what is, by necessity, something of an anti-climax in dramatic terms. Nevertheless, it remains a powerful and intelligent picture which exposes just how absolutely our devotion to an essentially trivial pursuit can blind us to its cost in terms of lives and families destroyed.
(Reviewed 15th March 2016)
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