By comparing the National Football League’s reaction to medical evidence linking repeated head trauma by its players to long-term brain damage and that of the tobacco industry’s reaction to medical evidence linking cancer and cigarette smoking, CONCUSSION cleverly makes its case. If it were just a case for corporate greed, that would be disturbing enough, though hardly surprising. CONCUSSION goes further though, demonstrating a pernicious ability by fantastically wealthy organizations to manipulate the media and the government, thereby making this not just a solid, intelligent film about a dedicated doctor, but also a case study in the still precarious position of the whistle-blower in contemporary society.
It’s also one of Will Smith’s best performances to date as Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist whose long list of accomplishments, and advanced degrees are established when we see him testifying in the penalty phase of a convicted murderer. Omalu, with his attention to detail, proves that said convicted murdered could not have committed the crime, and he proves it with such clarity, precision, and good grace that there is no question of his being wrong. He brings that same dedication, and good grace, to his daily work in the Pittsburgh Coroner’s office, where he treats his patients with the same concern and respect that is usually reserved for the living. He is interested in discovering what the proximate cause of a person’s death was, but the how of it. So when the body of Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster (David Morse) arrives after suffering a heart attack, Omalu wants to know why his teeth are glued into his jaw with an over-the-counter product, and why such a relatively young man has suddenly developed dementia, particularly when there are no signs of brain damage. At least not the naked eye. Thus begins his investigation into why football players so regularly show signs of dementia, hearing voices and becoming violent to themselves and to others. Thus also begins his run-ins with the NFL, which has a vested interest in keeping America’s Game above reproach. We have no trouble understanding the stakes here. CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), as Omalu names the syndrome, is the deepest that medical terminology goes. Instead, the film employs far more impactful animations of exactly what happens to blood vessels in the brain when concussed, or the simple, devastatingly effective metaphor Omalu employs using a Mason jar filled with water and a ball.
Smith is perfection. As a Nigerian immigrant who believed in the American Dream with all his heart and soul, he never confuses his essential idealism, rooted in a deep spiritual faith, with naiveté. A quiet man with the courage of his convictions coupled with a refreshing lack of ego. Omalu shines with an inner light that is dimmed, but never quite extinguished even when the government threatens his cranky mentor (Albert Brooks), or his unexpected ally, Steeler team doctor, Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), explains that the NFL will not allow Omalu to read his report to them. For a moment he retreats into recriminations, ascribing racial and cultural motives to the insult, before pulling himself together with perfect dignity and surrendering to the greater good.
As a character in CONCUSSION puts it, perhaps it was only an outsider, someone who does not watch football, who could have drawn the conclusions about how dangerous the sport is to its players. And perhaps it there was an element of fate that sent Webster to Omalu’s autopsy table. The film does not shy away from the possibility, underscoring it with how Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) the lovely Kenyan immigrant, enters his life via a clergyman’s intervention, and right after it is suggested that Omalu get either a hobby or a girlfriend.
Cinematically, CONCUSSION is a taut and suspenseful mystery with a compelling central character who exemplifies the highest ideals of what it means to be both a doctor and an American, standing up for those who can’t do so for themselves.