There was an excellent documentary earlier this year called Merchants Of Doubt, which exposed the tobacco industry’s denial of, and later cover-up of, evidence linking smoking to many diseases, particularly lung cancer. Now director Peter Landesman has given us a similar picture, albeit not a documentary, about the National Football League’s denial and cover-up of evidence linking football with traumatic brain injury. Concussion has more to do with science and medicine than it does football, so don’t expect a sports film.
Concussion stars Will Smith, at the top of his acting game as Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist working in Pittsburgh, who first discovers the link in 2002 when a series of former Pittsburgh Steelers die young for no apparent reason. In most cases, the athletes suffered from severe early onset dementia, but their bloodwork all tests fine. Dr. Omalu, a native of Nigeria who knows next to nothing about American football, finds the answer in their damaged brain tissue. Unfortunately, his subsequent campaign to publicize his discovery is thwarted at every turn by the NFL. First, the NFL brushes the issue under the rug, then they make the terrible mistake of attempting to discredit Dr. Omalu.
It is ironic that this revelation was identified by a man so unversed in football that is he unable to name a single other NFL team besides the Steelers. Had an American doctor detected the correlation between football and concussions, would he have led a crusade to warn the American public? Perhaps. But perhaps not, particularly if he were a sports fan. Fortunately for Dr. Omalu, an early detractor of his work is Dr. Julian Bailes, the Steelers’ former team doctor. Played by Alec Baldwin, it doesn’t take Bailes long to join Dr. Omalu in his quest for attention to this link of football to brain injury. It’s difficult for Bailes to witness the demoralizing deaths of his friends. His character serves as a guide for Dr. Omalu – sort of a Jiminy Cricket, advising the doctor what to expect next.
It is Bailes who predicts the muted reaction of the NFL powers. It is Bailes who prepares Omalu for the inevitable outcry (and even death threats) of the sports-loving public. Concussion is not always an easy film to watch, but it never crosses the line into “unbelievable,” the way last year’s Gone Girl did. As most of Concussion is true, I didn’t expect such a plot development, but when a carful of apparently deranged football fanatics follows Dr. Omalu’s wife home, I began to wonder.
Will Smith is outstanding as the Nigerian-born doctor. In fact if I couldn’t see Smith’s face, I would have assumed the role were played by an actual Nigerian. This may be the best job of acting he’s ever done. And Alec Baldwin is solid as the other half of this odd but effective partnership. Albert Brooks is also strong as Dr. Cyril Wecht, a Pittsburgh forensic pathologist and Dr. Omalu’s immediate superior. I liked newcomer Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Omalu’s wife. But I have a problem with Landesman’s screenplay, which gives too much time to the Omalu’s relationship – taking us through their first meeting, their first date, marriage, and family. I realize much of this is to indicate the passage of time between other scenes, but I wish Concussion had concentrated more on the science vs. football theme rather than the doctor’s personal life.
As is common in real-life films, the closing titles advise us what has happened in the intervening years. Here, we learn the NFL eventually admitted Dr. Omalu’s discovery was indeed correct, and steps were taken to diminish the effects of on-field head collisions. I wish Concussion had taken us through this period, rather than stopping fairly abruptly for no visible reason other than a two-hour running time had been reached.
In 2000, Steven Soderbergh released an outstanding film called Traffic, which examined the American drug culture through several lenses – two Mexican police officers attempting to expose drug trafficking to the U.S., an Ohio judge who takes on a drug kingpin, the judge’s drug-abusing teenage daughter, and a DEA investigation into a large drug cartel. Taken together, these stories paint a picture of the personal damage, high stakes, and enormous profits of the illegal drug trade. Soderbergh’s accomplishment was, in large part, due to the intertwined story-lines, a la any Robert Altman film.
But this year, I have been somewhat disappointed with two releases purporting to examine worthy issues by focusing on just one storyline. Suffragette allowed us to see the British women’s rights movement solely through the eyes of a London working woman. Now Concussion endeavors to show us the difficult battle for the acceptance of the link between brain injury and football – disguised as a pseudo-biography of the doctor who discovered the link. I would have preferred more perspective and less personal story. I can’t say is a bad film; it has a lot going for it. But it could have been so much more interesting. And eye-opening.