Contact sports and head trauma go hand in hand, but until relatively recently the potential long-term consequences of repeated knocks have gone largely unnoticed. Based upon a GQ article titled Game Brain by Jeanne Marie Laskas, Concussion is a dramatic thriller surrounding the true story of a Nigerian immigrant to the United States, Dr Bennet Omalu (a role filled by Will Smith).
Dr Omalu is a painstaking and brilliant forensic neuropathologist who makes an important discovery that puts him at odds with one of the most powerful institutions in the world, namely the NFL or National Football League. Gridiron is the most popular sport in the US and, although Dr Omalu is not familiar with the game, when he is faced with the premature death of one of the NFL’s legends, Mike Webster (David Morse), he is perplexed. Traditional investigations don’t turn up anything irregular, but that is when Dr Omalu begins to delve deeper (supported by his mentor, Dr Cyril Wecht; a character played by Albert Brooks). What he discovers the NFL doesn’t want to know about and does everything it can to try to shut him down. So, it becomes a David versus Goliath story.
Webster is the first patient in whom Dr Omalu uncovers chronic brain injury, specifically a condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), but unfortunately many others will follow. Nevertheless, time and again Dr Omalu butts up against the establishment, as hurdle after hurdle is put in his way. Along the journey, Dr Omalu befriends Mike Webster’s former team doctor, Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin). A secondary story concerns Dr Omalu’s personal life. A churchgoer, he takes in another immigrant, Prema Mutiso (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who turns out to be the love of his life.
Written and directed by Peter Landesman, Concussion follows the decade between 2002 and 2012. Producer David Wolthoff rightly paints Bennet as cut from the same cloth as Erin Brockovich, who perseveres in the face of all adversity.
Will Smith is excellent as the good doctor fighting the righteous fight, inhabiting the character and his exactitude. As Dr Omalu, he is a man who treats his patients with dignity and respect even though they are no longer breathing. He feels he is obligated to them and their families to find answers. I wondered about the way the film was turned into a thriller though, whether or not the whole thing had been stage-managed that way for dramatic effect. That was certainly much more noticeable in Concussion than it was with Erin Brockovich. To use a Western analogy, those wearing the white hats and those donning the black were obvious all the way through.
Perhaps, indeed, that was the way it was, but I thought that may have been a little too “clean” a representation of the facts. At least that was the impression I gained from viewing the movie. Nevertheless, it is a significant story triggered by a critically important discovery that has implications the world over.
Rated M, Concussion scores a 7 out of 10.
Cast: Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Morse, Albert Brooks
Release date: 18 February 2016
Rating: M – Mature themes and coarse language
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television