Story avoids the hard hits

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - Showtime - Broward - - MOVIES - By Katie Walsh

“Con­cus­sion,” writ­ten and di­rected by Peter Lan­des­man, es­tab­lishes two things right away — the ex­treme rev­er­ence that peo­ple have for foot­ball, through a Hall of Fame ac­cep­tance speech by Pitts­burgh Steeler “Iron Mike” Web­ster (David Morse), and the bona fides of Dr. Ben­net Omalu (Will Smith), an ex­tremely welle­d­u­cated Nige­rian im­mi­grant and foren­sic neu­ropathol­o­gist in the Pitts­burgh coroner’s of­fice. Th­ese are the two con­flict­ing forces through­out the film: the love of the game and the un­de­ni­a­bil­ity of science. The ba­sis for the film, the 2009 GQ ar­ti­cle “Game Brain” by Jeanne Marie Laskas (she also wrote the sub­se­quent book “Con­cus­sion”), re­lies more heav­ily on the lat­ter.

Dr. Omalu is the kind of coroner who treats his bod­ies as peo­ple, ask­ing them to help him find out what hap­pened to them. This is where Iron Mike ends up, dead at 50, scarred by self-in­flicted Taser wounds, liv­ing out of his truck, tor­mented by voices in his head. The doc­tor sets off down a self-funded path to dis­cov­ery, and finds that what he dis­cov­ers is some­thing that one of the most pow­er­ful MPAA rat­ing: PG-13 (for the­matic ma­te­rial in­clud­ing some dis­turb­ing im­ages, and lan­guage)

Run­ning time: 2:03

Opens: Fri­day or­ga­ni­za­tions in the coun­try wants to keep quiet.

It’s a new dis­ease, chronic trau­matic en­cephalopa­thy (CTE), caused by the kind of re­peated head in­juries com­mon for foot­ball play­ers, box­ers or wrestlers. This is con­tro­ver­sial be­cause his find­ings dare to sug­gest that play­ing foot­ball could be a haz­ard to one’s health. This isn’t some­thing that the NFL wants its play­ers — or the as­pir­ing col­lege and high school play­ers with big dreams of making it to the big leagues — know­ing.

Smith gives a strong per­for­mance as Omalu, more than just his dis­tinc­tive African ac­cent. He por­trays him as a car­ing and de­ter­mined man, an out­sider who is able to see things as they are be­cause he’s not be­holden to the re­li­gion of foot­ball. He be­lieves in the Amer­i­can dream, which is why he’s so ap­palled that th­ese play­ers, dream­ers them­selves, are tossed aside when they no longer have mon­e­tary value.

“Con­cus­sion” suf­fers a bit from not know­ing where to fo­cus — it glosses over some of the im­por­tant con­nec­tive tis­sue that would bet­ter demon­strate Dr. Omalu’s work. It stuffs those mo­ments into mon­tages, and lingers on scenes where he strug­gles with his ra­tio­nal­iza­tion for speak­ing up, try­ing to con­vince oth­ers to do the right thing. There are pep talks and tossed-off tru­isms, and not enough pro­ce­dure. This back and forth feels like an ap­pease­ment to the NFL it­self, to show the strug­gle in tak­ing the league on, which, if the science is to be be­lieved, he ab­so­lutely should.

It’s hard to watch “Con­cus­sion” and not feel in­fu­ri­ated about the sys­tems of power that ex­ploit bod­ies for profit and then have the gall to not take care of th­ese peo­ple.

Cou­pled with doc­u­men­taries like “Happy Val­ley” or “The Hunt­ing Ground,” you can’t help but feel that to re­main a con­sumer of the NFL or col­lege foot­ball is to be party to an ex­ploita­tive or­ga­ni­za­tion.

But the film ends on a note that es­sen­tially says it’s OK to love the sport of foot­ball, just that we should take care of our play­ers. Seems like a fair com­pro­mise, but for a film that wants to hit hard, where it hurts, at the end, it seems to shy away from that direct im­pact.

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