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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

November 23, 2017   |   Ithaca, NY

Life & Culture

Review: Moving performances and story produce impactful film

"Concussion"

Anyone who plays football knows how intensely athletes are putting their bodies at risk of serious physical injury that could impact their lives long after they stop playing. Of those people, how many would still play football if they knew they were taking an even greater risk with the safety of their brains?

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy is the degenerative brain disease being found in the brains of many deceased former professional football players. This detrimental disease has the NFL shaking in its boots in a way no number of player strikes, ACL tears or anything else could. The discovery of CTE and the ensuing multitude of sleepless nights high ranking NFL officials have experienced as a result can all be credited to Dr. Bennet Omalu, the protagonist of director Peter Landesman’s controversial and combative film “Concussion,” which is based on true events.

Omalu (Will Smith), a Nigerian immigrant with more advanced degrees than anyone can afford, was living in Pittsburgh and working in the Allegheny County coroner’s office in 2002. At work, he is given the task of performing the autopsy of Mike Webster (David Morse), former Pittsburgh Steelers’ center and pro football Hall of Famer. Webster’s passing was a citywide tragedy in Pittsburgh. However, for Omalu, who had never watched a single play of football in his life, this was the body of a man who was loved by everyone around him for reasons Omalu didn’t fully understand.

While it is apparent to Omalu that Webster died of a heart attack, Omalu is compelled to look deeper into Webster’s cause of death and the physical condition of his body. After conducting several self-financed tests with his mentor, Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), Omalu publishes his very unpopular findings in a scientific journal, thus, as the movie puts it, “giving the NFL’s biggest boogieman a name,” commencing a back-and-forth battle between Omalu and the NFL.

“Concussion” achieves two of its main goals. First, it effectively scares the viewer into understanding the violent problems CTE can cause. The film shows multiple instances of former NFL players completely losing control of their minds, and the incredibly harmful impact they can have on themselves and others. Any parent that is wavering about whether or not to allow their child to play football will be firmly against playing the sport after watching the scene where former Steeler Justin Strzelczyk (Matthew Willig) strangles his wife in front of their two kids and then drives off on his motorcycle and dies in a crash.

The film’s second success is how it frames the NFL as an organization that only cares about making money, and Omalu’s discovery is going to ruin their incredibly lucrative product. This starts when the film gives off the impression that former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue retired because he did not want the issue of brain damage in his legacy. While it is distinctly possible that Omalu’s findings might have contributed to Tagliabue’s stepping down, the film completely overplays its influence.

Smith, who bears no resemblance to his character, delivers a riveting performance that captures the struggles and distress the young doctor suffered on his way to validation. He provides viewers with a passionate and aggressive, yet subdued and humble persona that turns public opinion of the NFL from the provider of the mostwatched sport in the United States to a reckless, money-driven organization. He is at his best, however, when he delivers the cerebral side of Omalu, who talks about how much he dreamed of immigrating to the United States and his desire to become an American.

Traumatic brain injuries have quickly become the NFL’s biggest problem. While it appears now as though this film is making an effort to make the NFL game safer, “Concussion” unearthed for much of the footballwatching world the damage head injuries can have and negligence the NFL showed for many years.

Matt Hornick can be reached at mhornick@ithaca.edu or via Twitter: @MHornick21