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Film Review: Concussion

Concussion (2015; Directed by Peter Landesman)

Football is America’s most popular and grandest sport, and, in many ways, its best ideological, cultural, and psychological allegory. Especially in its professional form as packaged and presented by the National Football League (NFL), American football is a living metaphor for the dominant themes of American life: the rampant aspirational consumerism and capitalist expansion and exploitation of its economy, the racial hierarchy of its society, the belligerent parochial conservatism of its politics, the aggressive militarism of its foreign policy, and the cross-cultural tension between the ruling national mythos of heroic, trailblazing individualism (see the hagiographic glorification of the quarterback position, especially if filled by a white man) and the more pragmatic reality of a collective, diverse effort at progress (it is a team game, after all).

Concussion suggests that the cultural and economic juggernaut of pro football closely reflects another feature of American life: namely, the redirecting and compromising of medical practice, treatment, and research by big-money corporate interests. The film is based on the troubling medical science revelations around chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in former NFL players and the league’s attempts to suppress and discredit the findings that the sport can cause serious brain damage and corresponding, catastrophic psychological effects in those players. It renders the issue in biopic form with Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) as its focal point. As a forensic pathologist in Pittsburgh, the highly-educated, Nigerian-born Dr. Omalu performs autopsies with a touch both highly personal (he respectfully addresses cadavers by name and asks politely for their aid in uncovering their cause of death before cutting them open) and highly exacting.

Defended and semi-mentored by Allegheny County Coroner Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), Omalu claims a central role in the debate about brain injury in pro football after he performs an autopsy on former Pittsburgh Steelers all-star offensive lineman “Iron” Mike Webster (David Morse). A civic sports hero, Webster found his mental faculties and life fortunes deteriorating rapidly post-retirement, suffering through homelessness, substance abuse, and self-mutilation before dying in 2002 of a heart attack, aged 50. Over the objections of his Steelers-fan colleagues (Omalu himself, no football watcher, doesn’t even know who Webster is before he was laid on a slab in the morgue in front of him), Omalu delves deep into Webster’s body and especially his brain, which is atrophied on a microscopic but vital level undetectable on CT scans.

Shocked at the level of brain degeneration in a man of only 50, Omalu concludes that repeated blows to the head, a cascading series of “micro-concussions”, during Webster’s football career were ultimately responsible for the destruction of his brain and thus his premature death. Omalu convinces eminent local colleagues and publishes his findings, but finds the NFL’s response distinctly muted. Omalu’s conclusions about CTE become more widely known as several more prominent former players died while displaying similar symptoms of the condition, and the NFL and the football-loving public alike begin to strike back at his disturbing and sport-threatening science with a definite mob mentality. Targetted as much as a foreign outsider threatening America’s game as a doomsaying scientific Cassandra, Omalu is supported in his crusade for truth by former Steelers team doctor Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), and together they raise awareness of the risks of CTE in football while never quite denting the gleaming chrome facade of the NFL’s blithe corporate edifice of profit-driven unconcern.

Concussion, written and directed by Peter Landesman, does not honestly strengthen this public affairs story by running it through the Hollywood biopic alteration gauntlet. Far better for you, if interested, to seek out either of the far superior documentary films on the subject: Michael Kirk’s League of Denial for PBS’ Frontline series, or Steve James’ Head Games. Concussion dedicates more subplot time to Omalu’s personal life (especially his courtship with and marriage to Kenyan immigrant and registered nurse Prema Mutiso, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw), but somehow leaves the viewer with a less-formed idea of the man’s peculiar personality, mind, and singular determination than do intermittent talking-head interview appearances in the aforementioned documentaries.

Smith approximates his subject’s African English accent and indeed seems initially to be on the same wavelength to the real Omalu’s slightly eccentric and flinty volubility; his introductory appearance, good-naturedly interrupting prosecutors to list off his numerous, diverse degrees while offering expert testimony in court, makes keen use of Smith’s boundless natural charisma to sketch Omalu’s own particular charm. But as is too often the case with Will Smith movies, the needs of the drama damp down his light, and his talents are hidden in a bushel of the serious and the grave. Other performances seek not to upstage the star (though who doesn’t love even a middling Albert Brooks turn, truly?), with the exception of Morse as the wildly troubled Webster, but even his steely commitment to portraying the man’s psychological and behavioural nadir without a hint of artifice or vanity unfortunately smacks of hammy scenery-chewing.

Landesman’s film in general hits the key points of the CTE public exposure narrative without any special power or productive artistic risk-taking. It displays a tendency towards compromised safety that might lengthen some ex-players’ lives, if emulated by the NFL, but does it no favours as a public-issue film. Its depiction of the stealthily-beautiful city of Pittsburgh as a depressed post-industrial Rust Belt centre enervated only by its winning football team (Pittsburgh Penguin fans must feel like chopped liver, although to be fair, most of the film’s events take place in the Pens’ pre-Sidney Crosby fallow period), driven home by numerous shots of steel skies and ore-like river waters by cinematographer Salvatore Totino, seems like a dull oversimplification, too. Yet one recurring visual motif does land with impact. Recurrent shots of the Steelers’ enormous home stadium, Heinz Field, squatting on the banks of the Ohio River like a recumbent titan, haunt the film’s canvas. During Omalu’s vital meeting with the prominent local neurologist (Eddie Marsan) with whom he will publish his explosive findings, the yellow-emblazoned stadium is loomingly ever-present in the window of the doctor’s office, as if observing and pre-emptorily judging their insights and finding them wanting when compared to its spatial and popular dominance.

A huge shrine to a beloved sport built with public funds, the stadium is a dismissive spectre that hangs over Omalu’s conclusions, no matter how scientifically provable they may be. It is a concrete embodiment of the NFL’s considerable, unchallengeable economic and cultural capital, which likewise dominates American sports and society, replacing God as holder of dominion over an entire day of the week during its season. Omalu, an immigrant and outsider, comes to conceive of his quest for truth about CTE as a righteous effort to hold his adopted country to the high standards to which it claims to hold itself, standards which drew he and his wife to its teeming shores in the first place. But the NFL’s corporate whitewash of his explosive findings, the leveraging of its power in denial of their factual and scientific basis as a matter of cynical, greedy survivalism, demonstrates different and less-lofty standards for the capitalist exploitation of America’s underclass as quickly-discarded gridiron gladiators. Concussion decides to lean into the inspiration implications of Omalu’s story rather than the hot sociopolitical outrage at the heart of the NFL’s actions. This is a mistake, and it means that the film misses out on a shot at a stronger critique of America’s core metaphorical sport.

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Categories: Film, Reviews, Sports
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