“Concussion” Movie Review


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     I am as big an NFL fan as one could ever know.  I love football.  And not really the violence of it all either.  As I young child, growing up in San Diego, I was mesmerized by the bigger than life stars of the 1980’s Chargers and their vaunted Air Coryell attack led by quarterback Dan Fouts, tight end Kellen Winslow, and wide receivers Charlie Joiner, Wes Chandler, and John Jefferson.  All offensive skill players mind you, and it wouldn’t be until well into adulthood that I would realize the game would be won or lost in the trenches.  I guess you could say I was more attracted to the speed and the aerial aspects of the game, rather than the big hits many fans will most often cheer for.  But all along, the players in the National Football League were enduring an irreparable wear and tear on their bodies that would someday debilitate them and in some cases would kill them.  Director Peter Landesman’s “Concussion” chronicles the story of Nigerian immigrant and Pittsburgh Pathologist Dr. Bennett Omalu and the discovery of what we know today as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE, a degenerative disease found in the brain that results from repeated head trauma.

     In the film, Omalu, who is played in expert fashion by Will Smith, begins his research in 2002 after the unexpected death at the age of 50 of Pittsburgh Steelers icon and NFL Hall of Famer Mike Webster.  Webster, portrayed in a heart breaking performance by David Morse, has lost nearly everything and is now living in his pickup truck with nothing to show for his playing career.  He knows there is something wrong.  Something that has taken over his mind and causes symptoms including deep depression, extreme anxiety, memory loss, and sometimes violent tendencies.  An important moment early in the film has Webster visiting the Steelers’ former team doctor, Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), who continues to treat Webster but remains baffled as to how a healthy 50 year old man can possibly exhibit the kind of symptoms normally not seen until the onset of Alzheimers later in life.  We know Dr. Bailes wants to help and cares for deeply for someone he considers his friend, but when he turns to his nurse and says “What am I missing?”, we clearly know something terrible is causing Webster’s condition.

     After conducting Webster’s autopsy, Omalu sends samples of Webster’s brain for additional tests that he is told he must pay for himself.  Of course you may wonder why Omalu would spend some 20 thousand dollars of his own money, but Landesman ensures the script fully develops Omalu as a person who not only loves America, but also feels he must do what he feels is right and vindicate each and every person he conducts an autopsy on.  Omalu even goes as far as having a conversation with the dead person just prior to cutting them open, a ritual that is seen as bizarre by his co-worker, Daniel (Mike O’Malley), who doesn’t like him and lets it be known to their boss.  Fortunately for Omalu, the lead Pathologist, and both men’s supervisor, is Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), who sees a lot of himself in Omalu and ensures Daniel is kept at bay.  Even when the two clash as Omalu begins to perform the autopsy on Webster, who Daniel believes should not be cut open, Wecht steps in and sides with Omalu in order to ensure the proper cause of death is identified.  No one in the room knew at the time that Omalu was about to make a groundbreaking discovery that would shake the NFL and the public to its core.

     “Concussion” stages a series of scenes that depict a number of other real life former NFL players who mysteriously died or committed suicide after exhibiting similar symptoms to Webster.  As the years pass, we see former Steelers offensive tackle Justin Strzelczyk (Matthew Willig) have a violent and unexplained outburst that led to his death at just 36 years old.  We also watch a desperate Andre Waters (Richard T. Jones), a former safety with the Philadelphia Eagles,  who pleads to player representative Dave Duerson (Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje) for help, only to be turned away, before his untimely death at age 44.  And the list continues to go on, all the while Omalu is performing the same tests to these men’s brains and coming up with the same conclusion.  The repetitive head trauma they incurred during their football careers, which likely go as far back as their childhood, has taken a toll on their brains and caused what he calls CTE.  And with all of the technical jargon that comes across in some of these conversations as above our collective heads, Landesman ensures we all get it when Omalu explains our brain and skull physiology as compared to other animals, showing we just aren't designed for the kind of impacts a football player will absorb during a practice or game.  Hammering home the point, Omalu estimates Mike Webster may have endured some 70,000 concussive impacts to his head during his football career.

     Though “Concussion” is almost always compelling, there are also times the film borders on being pretentious as well, especially when we are consistently presented with scenes of Omalu pleading his case to Steeler clad naysayers in settings that always seem to be right next door to Heinz Field so the antagonist in the scene can point to it and talk about what the team means to the city.  And yet we have this proverbial good samaritan who hails from another country, kindly deflecting every barb as if he’s impervious to the ridicule and keeps his focus on a cause he believes is greater then himself.  I supposed it helps he admits early on he had never watched an NFL football game, thus making him the ultimate neutral party having nothing to lose or gain in his quest to discover this terrible disease.  And that’s not to say what Omalu discovered isn’t important, but you also will never convince me that the men who have put on a helmet and played the game at its highest level for decades didn’t know it was a dangerous sport.  Even today, there seems to be no shortage of athletes lining up to play at all levels, as the NFL remains the biggest sport in America.  Plus, you can’t tell me anyone is opposed to the ESPN clips the film shows of their football analysts doing a segment called “Jacked” in which they revisit the biggest bone crushing hits of the week.

     But then I think about one of my idols and how he died.  As the end credits roll, news footage of the late great Junior Seau’s suicide is shown on screen and I couldn’t help it as my eyes watered.  Junior’s death hit home for me in much the same way I’m sure Mike Webster’s did in Pittsburgh and that left me with so many questions after “Concussion” ended.  The main one being, has the NFL done enough in terms of rule changes and medical concussion protocol to help prevent players from suffering the effects of CTE in the future?  I love the game, but I truly hope the NFL continues to partner with neurological experts like Omalu in order to determine the best practices for prevention.  It doesn’t matter now whether or not the NFL knew about this, it’s what is done going forward.  And I believe that’s the message “Concussion” successfully conveys.  GRADE: B+