HALOS AND HEAD TRAUMA
Will Smith’s saintly doctor seems too good to be true
Saint Will Smith (see also: “The Pursuit of Happyness ,” “Seven Pounds”) returns to suffer stoically, forgive those who know not what they do and otherwise ennoble the world with his sensitivity and acuity in “Concussion,” a drama inspired by the real-life research of Dr. Bennett Omalu, the forensic pathologist who proved a link between football and traumatic brain disease.
Omalu’s admirable scientific curiosity and dogged resistance to the hugely profitable NFL, which worked to discredit his theories, might make for an interesting movie some day, but “Concussion” demonstrates confused priorities. The movie is as eager to exalt Omalu/smith as to expose the hypocrisy of the league and the dangers of its sport.
“I think you’re going to be an American hero,” says Omalu’s boss (Albert Brooks, continuing his late-career run as one of moviedom’s most welcome character actors). “You exemplify everything it means to be an American,” a federal official tells Omalu. (The doctor was born in Nigeria, so he’s also an ideal immigrant.) “I feel God in you,” a priest comments.
Indeed: Because the “statistical probability” of this African landing in Pittsburgh to slice up the brains of Steelers is remote, the movie suggests the Almighty may have nudged Omalu to come to America to uncover the scourge of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). “God did not intend for us to play football,” Omalu warns, and you may wonder if this conclusion was found in his slides or delivered by heavenly emissary. (Is this Dr. Bennett Omalu or Dr. Ben Carson?) Perhaps the NFL was overdue for a reckoning: After all, as the movie reminds us, the day of the week that professional football “owns” is “the same day the church used to own.”
Does Omalu have a fault? Of course: His fault is that he’s too perfect. He needs to be “a little less of an artist,” he’s told. See, Omalu is a kind of corpse whisperer who approaches each autopsy in a spirit of collaboration. “The dead are my patients,” Omalu explains, the twinkle in Smith’s eye matching his warm Nigerian accent. “I have to respect them.”
Written and directed by former investigative journalist Peter Landesman, working from a GQ article by Jeanne Marie Laskas, the attractively mounted if not quite embalmed “Concussion” is most lively when it leaves the lab to focus on the messy lives of the brain-injured players whose premature derangement inspired Omalu’s crusade. These include a Hulked-up David Morse as “Iron Mike” Webster, a glue-huffing loose cannon, and EX-NFL tackle Matt Willig as ill-fated lineman Justin Strzelczyk. Also making an impression is Alec Baldwin as a guilt-ridden former team doctor who offers the conflicted fan’s perspective: Football is “violent” and “meaningless,” he says, but
Will Smith plays Dr. Bennet Omalu, the forensic pathologist who proved a link between football and traumatic brain injury in “Concussion.”