The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"CONCUSSION"

Concussion

Football is virtually a religion in America. People worship their favorite teams and players with great intensity. Some even forgo family obligations so as not to miss “the Game” on Sunday afternoons. But football is also dangerous for those who play it. Heads are frequently knocked together, and the prevailing mentality within the sport is to “shake it off” when injured. Concussion is based on the true story of the doctor who tried to warn the NFL about the dangers of football – and was startled to learn that they already knew and didn't care.

Will Smith portrays Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Pittsburgh forensic pathologist who begins studying the brains of deceased pro football stars, many of whom committed suicide or exhibited erratic behavior prior to death. He eventually concludes that they all show signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive degenerative disorder caused by repeated brain trauma. Omalu believes that the average player is concussed hundreds of times over the course of a career, and that this is the cause of CTE. Together with his boss, coroner Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), he attempts to let the NFL know that its players are in danger. Commissioner Roger Goodell (Luke Wilson) has no interest in his findings, or in even acknowledging him. There's simply too much money at stake to risk the fallout.

You've got to hand it to Concussion; it doesn't go easy on the NFL or Goodell. The film, written and directed by Peter Landesman (Parkland), directly suggests that they put profits above players, even going so far as to suppress information about the potential hazards of football. Much of the movie's drama comes from watching Omalu attempt to make key people pay attention to his research, while constantly getting stonewalled by them because they don't want to hear about it. Concussion examines the idea that the infrastructure of professional football is so powerful, and so financially robust, that those in charge have done everything possible to insulate the sport from any kind of threat, real or perceived.

A portion of the film is spent showing what players with CTE go through. While several of these scenes border on the melodramatic, it's hard not to be shocked. Depression, anxiety, uncontrollable rage, and self-harm are some of the things that are caused by the brain injury. Real-life examples are part of the story, including the sad case of Justin Strzelczyk, who fatally drove his car into a tanker truck at 90 miles per hour. The NFL's refusal to act on Omalu's research is the kind of thing that should make people angry. Concussion puts together a pretty damning case against the organization for not letting players like Strzelczyk know what they were up against.

Will Smith is the perfect choice to star in this story. A famously driven entertainment mogul, Smith clearly understands the unceasing dedication Omalu has toward his research. The actor very convincingly hits the most important note: that the doctor thinks his work will be embraced, is shocked when it's met with resistance, and then uses that shock to shout the message even louder. It's a fascinating character arc, one that gives the movie a consistently urgent quality. Stories about a person taking on an entire system are rarely this timely.

Aside from occasional heavy-handedness, the biggest weakness in Concussion lies in its lack of a solid female lead. Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Beyond the Lights) plays Prema, Omalu's love interest. She has two functions in the film. The first is to react to what Omalu is doing. She asks handy questions so that he can tell her – and, by extension, the audience – what he's doing. Her other role is to indicate the passage of time. When they're abruptly engaged, we know some time has passed. When she's suddenly pregnant, we know the story has jumped ahead several more months. Prema is never developed as a character on her own, outside of those two roles. As a result, scenes with her have a great big void right in the center. It's not the actress's fault; her character is badly underwritten. Concussion would have been improved by leaving Prema out and devoting even more time to Omalu's plight, or, even better, giving her a way to be more central to the drama.

In the end, though, the movie succeeds in dealing with its core issue. Will Smith is excellent, and the story absolutely drives home the point that the NFL is perfectly willing to sacrifice the health and well-being of the very players who line its executives' pockets. It's the kind of thing that should infuriate football fans and make them rise up. The film's painful truth is that it won't.

( out of four)

Note: For an insightful documentary on CTE and the dangers of football, I also recommend The United States of Football, which is now available on DVD.


Concussion is rated PG-13 for thematic material including some disturbing images, and language. The running time is 2 hours and 3 minutes.


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