Director: Peter Landesman ( Parkland) Starring: Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha- Raw, Luke Wilson, David Morse, Albert Brooks Verdict: Closing down a school of hard knocks
THE hero is a Nigerian forensic pathologist. The villain is America’s National Football League. The story – sadly, but significantly – is true.
A factual drama where the underlying message is powerful enough to shut down the screenplay’s over- mawkish tendencies, Concussion chronicles a breakthrough discovery that carried serious ramifications for contact sports all over the world.
In 2002, while working as a coronial researcher in Pittsburgh, Dr. Bennet Omalu ( played by Will Smith) diagnosed a then- unknown disease specifically confined to ex- NFL players.
Naming the condition CTE ( chronic traumatic encephalopathy), Omalu found the cause to be a direct consequence of a long career spent in the elite ranks of American football.
The multiple blows to the head sustained during this time – which could run to as much as 50,000 highG- force hits – resulted in a terrifying and irreversible array of symptoms.
Rapidly debilitating motor skills, sudden and uncharacteristic outbursts of aggression, pronounced dementia ( at ages as early as 40), repeated thoughts ( and full- blown acts) of suicide.
You would think that such a shocking discovery would have alarm bells ringing in the halls of the NFL. Omalu certainly did.
However, rather than act immediately in the interests of protecting its players, the NFL moved heaven and earth to reassure the public “there’s nothin’ to see here, folks”.
In fact, the NFL spent more time trying to smear Omalu’s reputation – portraying the distinguished medico as a total quack – than it did taking a look at his chillingly conclusive findings.
It took several more years – and the sudden, CTE- related meltdowns of several more ex- players – before the NFL finally admitted something might be wrong. Though sports fans with a fascination for the backroom politics of big- time football will happily accept the honourable intentions of Concussion at face value, the film does have its work cut out convincing non- jocks it is worth two full hours of their time.
Therefore the broad appeal targeted by Will Smith’s performance as Omalu is of paramount importance. Some viewers will find the film overplays the saintly virtues of the man, taking him dangerously close to the brink of caricature.
That may be so, but Smith still does a fine job of communicating the stubborn resilience of Omalu, an admirably unapologetic whistleblower so committed to the CTE cause he paid for his life- saving research out of his own pocket.