Concussion review

by Steve Pulaski

It seems there is nothing more American than a corporation going against damn-near indisputable evidence of harm being done or being perpetuated by their silence. In the 1990’s, it was tobacco tycoons like Philip Morris and R. J. Reynolds funneling countless money to lobbyists in effort to keep word from getting around that smoking cigarettes and cigars causes innumerable health problems to ones system, and in the modern day, it’s the rampant denial of climate change by big oil companies like BP and the billionaire Koch brothers. Somewhere in between blowing the lid off of both the tobacco and the oil industry was a deeper, more human-centered issue that shocked a corporation that has gone on to own a day of the week.

That issue is concussions and pervasive, crippling head trauma in the National Football League. In 2002, following the death of former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster, a Nigerian pathologist named Dr. Bennet Omalu discovered that repetitive head trauma, by way of thunderous and recurring blows to the head, winds up choking the brain, which sits inside the human skull in a bath of fluids disconnected from any part of the skull. Dr. Omalu’s research discovered that Webster’s bouts of dizziness, paranoia, and instability were results of taking thousands of blows to the head – the equivalent of more than 20,000 car accidents – while playing football. Omalu’s research would seem outlandish if it didn’t keep being proven, following the death of Steelers offensive tackle Justin Strzelczyk, who had suffered from chronic trauma encephalopathy (CTE), and the suicides of Philadelphia Eagles safety Andre Waters and Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson, who wound up donating his brain to Omalu for research.

Directed by
Peter Landesman
Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Albert Brooks
Release Date
25 December 2015
Steve’s Grade: B

Upon Omalu’s findings being published and released to the public, he was met with widespread criticism for his lack of formal U.S. citizenship and his alleged efforts to take down or neuter one of America’s most cherished sports. The NFL, including the newly appointed commissioner Roger Goodell, tried everything to silence Omalu, even going to great lengths by staging panels and press conferences that made the public look like the league was addressing the problem, when really, it was nothing more than a publicity stunt.

Though it’s difficult to go any Sunday without hearing something about concussions during a game, be it from a coach asserting that he’s taking every step to prevent such matters, or a player experiencing concussion-like symptoms, Omalu’s story is given the recognition it deserves in Peter Landesman’s “Concussion.” Landesman, who wrote and directed “Parkland,” a film about the multitude of key people that witnessed the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on the frontlines, molds “Concussion” into a tense, slowburn procedural with a strong central performance at its core.

Omalu is played by Will Smith in what is a comeback role he was lucky to get. After the notorious financial and critical failure of “After Earth,” Smith was sidelined as a movie star, barely earning a secondary mention in the forgotten 2014 “Winter’s Tale.” This was a role he needed in order to propel him back to the frontlines as one of America’s strongest and most consistently impressive actors, and needless to say, he nails it. His performance as Omalu is understated and thoughtful, as he plays the softspoken, Nigerian pathologist with strong charisma, effectively depicting an almost meditative admiration for America as the homeland of God’s people where anything is possible. Even certain scenes in the trailer, such as the famous “tell the truth” scene that came off as corny as a stand-alone moment, achieve fireworks here as Smith is back in his element.

Right by Smith’s side is Alec Baldwin, playing Dr. Julian Bales, an NFL-appointed doctor for teammates, who abandons his cozy, high-paying job for the greater good of mentally unstable football players that run the risk of dying under the same circumstances as Webster. Baldwin does a nice job of holding his own weight as a character in this film and not intruding on Smith’s almost tour-de-force performance as Omalu. It also greatly helps that the film around them, while admittedly focused on pushing the agenda and awareness of increased safety regulations of football players, allows for a liberal amount of character to take prominence over occasionally dehumanizing science and medical conversation.

As an audience member, I can see from the montages of football games in the film and hear from the sound two helmets or skulls make on impact that that kind of repetitive trauma isn’t good for the head, just from a logic standpoint. I can see from Webster’s worn-face and addiction to painkillers as he lives in the back of his beater pickup truck that the effects of that kind of trauma are lasting. I don’t need to be told in multiple different terms I cannot remember, let alone pronounce, how and what membranes are affected in the brain by that kind of brutality. Landesman thankfully recognizes this and makes “Concussion” about those who suffer from this kind of illness and Omalu’s struggle to be honest and compassionate as he goes up against a money-hungry, corporate entity interested in protecting their own brand rather than the lives of those that make said brand what it is.

“Concussion” is a film that succeeds because it’s a human-centered story, with two strong performances that work off of one another, yet stand alone in their own elements, in addition to having some seriously crisp, almost dreamlike cinematography (done by Salvatore Totino, who also did the cinematography for “Changing Lanes” and “The Missing”). Some will complain it’s not as critical of the NFL as it should be, and some will find the lack of explicit science deceptive in some way. For me, it’s about all you can ask for a film that simply wants the truth and human-scale to prevail above all. It doesn’t have the slickness nor the social relevance angle that this year’s amazing “Spotlight” had, but it also serves as competent dramatic entertainment in addition to being the nudge we all need before we fall asleep from our wakeup on this issue.