by Jeff Walls
Professional football is not just a sport, it is an industry. And the National Football League is so big that, as explained by Dr. Cyril Wecht in Concussion, they “own a day of the week… the same day the church used to own.” Few individuals would ever have the gumption to take on a corporation so large, but Concussion, inspired by a GQ article called “Game Brain,” is the story of one such individual.
Will Smith plays real-life Nigerian-born physician Dr. Bennet Omalu who lives and works as a pathologist in Pittsburgh. One day on his table is the body of former Steelers great Mike Webster. As Omalu put it, Webster was once one of Pittsburgh’s favorite sons, but somehow he ended up dying in disgrace, having lost touch with reality. Dr. Omalu looks for an explanation of the changes in Webster’s personality by examining his brain and what he concludes is that the constant head trauma Webster suffered through his years in the NFL caused a new illness which he calls chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
Omalu’s discovery does not sit well with the NFL, who sees his diagnosis as a threat to their industry. Omalu is seen as a whistleblower and his life becomes a series of threats and efforts to disprove his theory. A lesser man might have given up on the battle, but Omalu continues his efforts to educate the world and, more importantly, the human beings who are putting themselves at risk for disease every time they step out on the football field. The more of these men who fall, the fewer defenses the NFL has to prevent Omalu’s message from getting out.
Will Smith is terrific as Omalu. It is easily the actor’s best performance since his Oscar-nominated turn in 2006’s The Pursuit of Happyness. He’s almost too good as he is so compelling that it seems crazy that anyone would refuse to take his character seriously. And I am not enough of an expert on Nigerian accents to say whether his was good or not, but I can say without a doubt that it never wavered throughout the entire film.
The movie itself is well-made and gets its story across, but it does not stray much from the typical whistleblower story. There is an excellent analogy used in the movie comparing the NFL to another corporation who had its own share of whistleblowers out to uncover the dangers of their product: big tobacco. That might not be the image the NFL is looking for, but it does make sense. After all, Omalu is not saying that the NFL should be shut down, but that the players have the right to know the risks of the game, much like cigarette users have a right to know the risks of smoking.
When Sony was hacked earlier in the year, one of the emails released suggested that changes were made to the film’s script in order to avoid completely antagonizing the NFL. Whether that is true or not, I cannot say, as the NFL does not necessarily come out of this film looking like winners, but if it is true, it would be interesting to see what the more scathing version might have looked like. The film did bark at the NFL, but perhaps it would have been that much more interesting had there been more bite.
I am an NFL fan and although Concussion is not going to stop me from watching the games and rooting on my favorite team, it will surely have me thinking about the game in a different way.
Concussion opens today at the AMC Southcenter 16, the Century Federal Way, and Kent Station 14. Won’t it be nice when Des Moines has its own theater again? It’s reportedly gonna happen! Until then, eat local before you go!