So it turns out that repeated blows to the head over the course of, say, a 20-year football career, from high school to college to the NFL, can be rather bad for your brain. Like, it can make you crazy and then kill you, way before your time. Who knew? The NFL definitely knew by the early 2000s, when neuropathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu documented a degenerative brain disease he dubbed chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in former pro football players. They probably knew much earlier than that, but like how Big Tobacco denied any connection between smoking and cancer and had their own paid-in-full “scientists” backing that up, the NFL kinda still, to this day, has its fingers in its ears and is chanting “la-la-la, we can’t hear you.”
Concussion is the docudrama tale of how Omalu made his discovery, and the battle he fought with the NFL merely to get them to listen to what he had to say. It’s ironic that the controversy surrounding this movie is not “Oh my god, football is a killer” or, as Omalu says here, “God did not intend for us to play football” (and helmets don’t do a damn thing to prevent the head injuries), but the revelation a few months back, via the Sony email hack, that the studio edited the film to soften the blow, so to speak, and so as not to make the NFL look bad or to impugn a sport that many Americans consider akin to a religion. If that’s the case, it’s tough to imagine what the original version of Concussion would have looked like, because this is a quietly horrifying movie that doesn’t appear to make any bones — cranial or otherwise — about the terrible damage American football causes to its players. As The New York Times noted in its piece about Concussion and the Sony hack, the company is almost alone among Hollywood studios in having no financial ties to the NFL… and I think that shows here. This film may not be entirely fearless: it’s a little too modulated in its critique of how the sport is played today (the brutality is a relatively new “innovation”), and a little too adulatory of its “grace.” But I don’t see how anyone can watch this movie and let their kids play in even a pee-wee league anymore.
If Concussion feels a bit journalistic, that’ll be down to director Peter Landesman, a former investigative journalist; his first feature, Parkland, about the ordinary people who took part in the events of the day JFK was assassinated, has a similar straightforward, no-nonsense approach. And he’s working from a GQ article about Omalu by Jeanne Marie Laskas, which you can read online. But for all the hidden horrors Omalu uncovers, as a Pittsburgh pathologist who specializes in the brain and who gets intrigued when former Steelers keep showing up on his morgue slab, this isn’t a relentlessly grim movie; it’s not CSI. A huge part of that is down to Will Smith, as Omalu. This is Smith’s first performance that doesn’t feel like he’s playing a version of himself. If it was a stretch for him to inhabit a Nigerian immigrant scientist and depict his slow disillusionment with the American ideal he held in his mind, it doesn’t show; Smith is as effortless and as charming as he ever is. From how he talks kindly to the bodies he autopsies to his intellectual excitement over the CTE discovery, he is the calm center of the film.
Maybe that’s where the downplaying came in. As a recent immigrant, Omalu isn’t familiar with American football and has no idea of the power of the NFL, or of the shitstorm he would be setting off by highlighting the terrible problem of brain injuries in the sport — he thought everyone would be happy to hear his news, so that the problem could be fixed. But there likely isn’t anywhere near enough corporate skullduggery here, and there probably could be more emphasis on Omalu being the outsider with no stake in the sport as the only sort of person who could highlight such a fundamental problem. But this is minor issue that doesn’t even rise to the level of a complaint. Concussion is an important film raising a matter of what should be vital concern to anyone whose child plays football, and should make anyone who watches the game less likely to cheer on its violence; massive tackles should be alarming, not rousing. Even if this weren’t a solidly entertaining medical procedural, what it has to say should make it a must-see.