Will Smith Fires Dire Warning in “Concussion”
By Skip Sheffield
Confession, I never much liked football, and it’s not because I could never make the team or even play the game.
This puts me squarely on the side of Dr. Bennet Omalu, the hero of “Concussion.” Dr. Omalu is played by Will Smith in a strictly dramatic role. At first I didn’t quite recognize Will, his makeup and thick Nigerian accent seemed so authentic.
Dr. Omalu earned his medical degree in Nigeria, then earned a string of advanced degrees after coming to England and the USA. To say he was an over-achiever would be understating it. The story, based on the 2009 GQ article “Game Brain” by Jeanne Marie Laskes and adapted to the screen by director Peter Landesman (“Kill the Messenger,” “Parkland”), begins in 2002. The supremely over-qualified Dr. Omalu has taken a job as a pathologist in the Allegheny County Coroner’s Office in Pittsburgh. Dr. Omalu has highly unconventional autopsy techniques. For one thing he talks to the corpses. For another he is very slow and methodical. This drives the office supervisor, Dan Sullivan (Mike O’Malley) crazy, but Dr. Omalu has a staunch defender in his supervisor, Dr. Joseph Maroon (Arliss Howard) and the big boss, Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks).
Pittsburgh is a football-crazy town that loves its home team, The Steelers. The movie begins with action shots and a farewell speech by its star center, Mike Webster (David Morse). Flash forward a few years and Webster is a homeless derelict, living in an SUV. One of his former teammates comes to check up on him, and Webster shoos him away. A few days later Webster is dead, and his body ends up in Dr. Omalu’s morgue.
Against the wishes of Dan Sullivan, Dr. Omalu performs an autopsy. He goes one further by asking to dissect the brain. Under protest the doctor is allowed to extract brain tissue samples, but any further testing must be paid for by him.
Just as Dr. Omalu suspected from research conducted in England, Mike Webster suffered from brain abnormalities and subsequent behavior abnormalities from brain trauma. The abnormalities can only be confirmed after the victim has died and his brain dissected.
It is one obstacle after another for Dr. Omalu, who gains a helpmate in fellow African immigrant, Prema Mutiso (beautiful Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who eventually becomes his wife.
The big fight begins when Dr. Omalu gains enough evidence to publish a paper on the syndrome called CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). He gains a persuasive ally in Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), a former NFL head physician who now believes his powerful employers are covering up reckless human suffering for profit.
“Concussion” is a long and complex story. There are no clear-cut winners. Football is America’s favorite sport. NFL players filed a class-action suit in 2011 and got a settlement. There is no way of making the game of tackle football “safe.” At least this film will make some people aware of the consequences of its excesses.
As for Will Smith, his brilliant, impassioned performance a Dr. Omalu is a career high point. One hopes he is no lost in a crowded field for Best Actor nominations.