Concussion is based on the actual life of Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith), a brilliant resident alien working for the Philadelphia Coroner’s Office. Bennett brings with him all of the attributes an audience associates with being an American – hard worker, compassionate, ambitious. These are the things that get him into trouble and this story starkly delineates the difference between what we think an American is, and how we actually can be.
When the narrative turns to NFL vs Omalu, the NFL is scared for the wrong reasons. They’re terrified releasing this information will destroy the national franchise. From Pee-wee leagues to College teams, how many future players will move on to safer sports? It certainly contrasts from the braggadocio of owning a day of the week and commanding the nation’s attention four days a week for 20 weeks. The nation even discusses football in the off season, and some would argue football has no off season. They failed to realize that Omalu’s discovery of CTE wouldn’t bring football to its knees unless the problem was ignored. Omalu’s motives were more altruistic – bring it to their attention so they could work towards saving future lives, to save future ailing players from misdiagnoses and treat them like the revered heroes the sport held them to be, instead of homeless messes that are an embarrassment to the sport. Unfortunately, it was easier to accept that former players spent fortunes on hookers and blow while simultaneously destroying their families than to admit the organization fundamentally screwed up, by letting them play to the roars and dollars of millions with catastrophic head injuries.
The terror experienced by the NFL not only over the revelation of these findings but their previous knowledge is certainly enough to make any organization shudder, which is why they handled it so poorly, nearly destroying a man’s life in its own flailing efforts to cover it up. Even today the ripples of their sloppy handling can be felt, with “Concussion Protocol” being announced every time a player hits his head. It’s over the top, necessary, and a way for the NFL to say, sure this movie made us look like jerks, but we’re talking care of it.
They were willing to ignore it completely until high-ranking players began not just dying, but dying badly. It’s telling how an organization can command what is known as the holiest day of the week, and still so completely fail its players.
But this story is still about Bennett, and his own struggle to be an American and be accepted by his peers, despite being railroaded and ignored and vilified in the press. He manages to hold it together, spending his own money more than once to prove his case. He is diligent and dogged, and as an audience, you’re torn between wanting him to give up and just be a normal American by keeping his head down, and rooting for him to tell what he knows to save lives. He meets a girl, settles down, works hard, makes something important of himself and is torn down for his efforts.
If that’s not what being an American is all about, I don’t know what is.
You can’t not like this movie, for its humor, for its dark but necessary subject matter, and for its secondary and tertiary characters which make this more a universal story. From the decline of Mike O’Malley (David Morse) to the compassionate turn by Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), former team doctor and conspirator turned believer (the Louisiana accent was surprisingly honeyed and subtle) to his wife, Prema Mutiso (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Special shout out to Albert Brooks, who brings the acerbic Dr. Cyril Wecht to life, with the give ‘em hell attitude the movie really needed to prevent it from wallowing in feel-good territory. Concussion is told in your standard three-act format, infact my companion was even able to call them out,and the score – something I only notice when it’s obvious and jarring – accompanied the film like a faithful if quiet friend. There isn’t anything about this film I flat out hated. It’s not about the condition of CTE, save that for NOVA, that made this movie hard to watch, but an exceptional David and Goliath story.
The exception of course being Goliath’s injury wasn’t immediately fatal, and like CTE, the effects are long term and debilitating.