Sony Pictures 123 Minutes PG-13
CONCUSSION is not only the story of brains getting scrambled on the football field, but about one doctor, Bennett Omalu, who was willing to knock heads with the powerful National Football League. This is the story of courage, love and patriotism that drives Dr. Omalu to stand up to incredible pressure from the NFL to discredit his findings and threatened to destroy his career and his personal life.
This story of the over-matched under dog taking on the powerful elite is the core of this narrative, but other central relationships shown in the film make CONCUSSION a more entertaining package.
Will Smith is definitely back on his game portraying this brilliant Nigerian immigrant. As a coroner in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, he discovered CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy). That’s the degenerative brain disorder he found through autopsies he performed on deceased former Pittsburgh Steelers players, like Hall of Famer Mike Webster, played painfully well by David Morse (True Detective). The disease causes a severe form of dementia which has resulted too often in sufferers taking their own lives.
Smith, not only met, but observed Dr. Omalu doing autopsies to see what makes this man tick. Smith also worked with a dialect coach for three months to get the accent and speech patterns of the accomplished Nigerian doctor, who has 9 degrees in everything from Psychology to music, as well as specialized medicine.
Writer/Director Peter Landesman says he wrote the part of Omalu expressly for Will Smith. The Director found Omalu to possess a “complex, joyful intellect,” just like the actor. Landesman says that many people watching this movie won’t even recognize they’re watching Will Smith during the first minutes, because he inhabits the character so well. We agree.
Omalu had two allies, Dr. Cyril Wecht, played by Albert Brooks, and Dr. Greg Bailes, played by Alec Baldwin. Wecht was the Chief Coroner and Dr. Omalu’s boss who encouraged him to follow his convictions wherever it took him. Brooks is also convincing, adding some dry humor to lighten the situation and make the doctor feel more comfortable. Omalu really saw Wecht as someone he respected to the point of dressing like him and driving the same kind of car.
Bailes had been the Pittsburgh Steelers Team Doctor and saw what was happening to his former patients. They both encouraged Omalu to find the scientific proof and present it to save more players lives. Bailes was the delivery system for Dr. Omalu because he had the contacts to try to get the medical research heard by the NFL. But the NFL did its best to squelch it and discredit his reputation.
If you’re at all squeamish, you may balk at seeing the good doctor prepare to take apart a body to examine why they died. But, fortunately, good camera work and editing show very little of that gruesome process. What IS shown, is what also impressed Will Smith about the Doctor. He actually talks to the dead in an empathetic and nurturing way while directing them, asking them to help him discover how they passed away.
Gugu Mbatha Raw (Beyond the lights, Jupiter Ascending) plays Prema, the young Kenyan immigrant who meets Omalu in church and ends up his wife. But she is so much more. She is not only smart, beautiful and a former nurse, but gives him the courage Omalu needs to continue his quest to reveal the truth about football and brain disease.
Landesman notes that every warrior needs a Queen at home to complete him. Prema is exactly the Queen he needs and we found Gugu to be one of the best casting decisions in this project. They work well together and are very convincing. You will probably be seeing a lot more of this talented English actor who is also a singer, dancer and sax musician.
Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje plays Dave Duerson, the Chicago Bear Defensive Back who committed suicide and left a note asking that his brain be diagnosed for the disease, which turned out to be positive.
Adewale says he has a great deal of respect for Dr. Omalu and his unshakable pursuit of the truth. The actor says there was added pressure to make his role truthful knowing that Duerson’s relatives are still alive. He tried to make the character as true as he could within the context of a Hollywood movie and hopes the soul and truth will come through in this film.
The villain in this story is the NFL. The League has known for some time there is a problem but suppresses the truth to keep the profits flowing. The game itself is a battle of one team against another. But it’s not just a game, it’s serious business for the players and team owners who stand to gain huge amounts of money. The doctors hired by the NFL may shirk their responsibility to protect the players but also treat as patients. The cover-up is portrayed here as going all the way to the top, and points the finger at league Commissioner Roger Goodell, played by Luke Wilson.
Is this worth your bucks? This movie is going to encounter a lot of criticism from football die hards and defenders of the status quo because it attacks the basic appeal of the sport which include brutal collisions and speed. It’s one of the most dangerous sports in spite of wearing helmets and all that padding. They may be used not only for protection, but as weapons. Some think that the helmet on helmet collisions are the source of many of the problems and they’re just beginning to address it.
There’s plenty of criticism for taking the NFL to task, but not of Smith’s performance. He’s already got a Golden Globe nomination for his transformation and emotional portrayal of this courageous crusader. Will Smith knows his performance tackling this subject may have a downside. He’s a fan and his son plays football. Guess he might just have to watch the NFL on TV. He’s even joked during interviews promoting the movie that he doesn’t expect any invitations to NFL games from here on.
Like a football game, the first quarter of this film is a little slow, but when the hard knocks start coming, Will Smith and Concussion pack an emotional punch.