Concussion is a 2015 film that incorporates two types of dramas: the medical drama and the sports drama. This is a subgenre combination that you really don't see often in movies, so this film is already unique in that respect. But that's not all. Concussion is based on a true story that is still being written. Many films based on true stories depict events that have a beginning, middle, and end because they occurred in the distant past. This one, however, only presents the beginning and middle, because nothing in real life that has happened up until the theatrical release of this film can qualify as an end to a saga. The closure to the story, if there will be one, is something we have to wait for.
To really understand this film, one must understand the real-life events that have been reported in the news media even before Concussion hit theaters. For decades, the sport of American football has been one of the biggest pastimes in the United States. Even as the sport involves tackling opponents to the ground to stop progress of a football being carried across a field, very few people in the audience ever considered it to be harmful to the body. Only in the past ten years or so have signs emerged that indicate the strong possibility of brain damage in football players due to repeated body jolting during the game: retired football players suffering from serious neurological and psychiatric disorders, often to the point of committing suicide. The National Football League (NFL) is now confronted with the question of whether their sport is dangerous to its players and whether big changes must be made.
In the film Concussion, Will Smith plays Dr. Bennet Omalu, a pathologist specialized in examining the dead through autopsies and microscopic analysis of tissue. He is also subspecialized in neuropathology, meaning he has more in-depth knowledge of brain pathology than the general pathologist. Overall, Omalu is a very intelligent and educated man, with multiple university degrees from Nigeria as well as Columbia University in the U.S. The first great thing about this movie is that Will Smith is a fine actor in this role, portraying a smart and compassionate man who is 100% dedicated to science and uncovering the truth. There's no doubt that this is one of the best performances of Will Smith's career.
The first couple of minutes of the movie introduce Omalu and the way he works carefully at a morgue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It also gives us the first sight of Mike Webster, who had played the center position for the Pittsburgh Steelers football team. We see Webster, played by David Morse, as an apparently healthy man giving a speech as well as a disheveled old man who is suffering and on the brink of suicide. It is this person who, in 2002, ends up on the autopsy table for Omalu to examine. Little does Omalu expect that this case will be historic, for both the field of medicine and the sport of football.
That's because Webster is the first NFL player to be diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopahy (CTE), and Omalu is the one who coined the term "CTE" to describe brain damage from repeated head trauma. Another important event that occurs is that Omalu and several colleagues publish the details of Webster's case in a medical journal. (If you are curious, the case report, which is briefly shown in the movie, is titled "Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a National Football League Player" and published in the July 2005 issue of the journal Neurosurgery.) This certainly gets the NFL's attention, but sadly, like any giant business that does anything to protect its bottom line, the league does not view Omalu favorably at all.
Though Will Smith is great as the star here, we should not forget about the supporting cast. There is Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Prema, the Kenyan woman who will eventually become Omalu's wife and give him the support he needs during tough times. Another key ally for Omalu is Alec Baldwin as Dr. Julian Bailes, who had been the team physician for the Pittsburgh Steelers and now stands by Omalu's important scientific findings. Also expect to see good performances from Albert Brooks, Paul Reiser, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, and even Luke Wilson who appears briefly as NFL Commissioner Roger Goddell.
We can all agree that this film is intended to raise awareness of CTE in NFL players. While it's probably not meant to be anti-football, there are nevertheless some unforgettable scenes that illustrate how serious CTE is. For example, there are scenes featuring retired NFL players (portrayed by actors, of course) who have gone mad with anger or depression because of severe symptoms from brain damage. For extra dramatic effect, one of these sad scenes alternates with a brief scene of excited Pittsburgh Steelers fans at a bar watching their favorite team on television, which raises the question of whether fans are to blame for supporting a dangerous sport. Then there is actual archived footage of NFL games showing players taking violent hits, including one player who lands on his head. To top it off, there is a shot of two football players colliding, after which the camera instantly zooms into the head of one of the players so that we see a computer animation of the brain colliding with the skull and the microscopic damage that is likely resulting from this collision.
Even if you know the details of the CTE issue in the NFL, do not assume that watching this movie will be boring and predictable. Besides featuring a great cast, Concussion is written in a compelling fashion. It is known that telling a story quickly and superficially will minimize or eliminate its emotional impact on the audience, while telling a story carefully and slowly will increase it. Thankfully, Concussion does the latter. It will either educate you about CTE in the NFL for the first time or increase your understanding of it if you already know about it. If you want a great scene that showcases Will Smith's solid performance, Dr. Omalu's well-rounded knowledge, and this film's gripping manner of storytelling, watch the scene where Omalu explains his discovery of CTE. He delivers a crystal clear explanation that incorporates not just the details of medical science, but also the gameplay mechanics of football and the cranial anatomy of other animals.
In conclusion, Concussion is a very good film because of the intriguing contemporary subject matter, great cast performances (especially from Will Smith and Alec Baldwin), and a script that tells a story with emotion. I had expected a pretty good film with predictable story and a decent performance from its star, but I ended up being fascinated by Dr. Omalu, feeling sad for retired football players suffering from CTE, and being concerned about current football players who may be just starting to develop CTE. I'll even go as far as to say that I don't know if I can ever watch football again, knowing what I know after watching this film. Whatever you end up taking away from Concussion, one thing is clear. This movie will have some kind of emotional impact and will certainly open your mind about an issue that cannot and should not be ignored.
Anthony's Rating: 9/10
(Review originally published at http://anthonysfilmreview.com/Film/C/Concussion.htm)