Concussion

 photo concussion_ver2_zpsn7swvjsa.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgBefore I launch into my review of Concussion, I thought a little primer on biology might help. So the brain floats inside the skull surrounded by something called cerebral spinal fluid (CSF). When the body is suddenly stopped after a blow to the head, like after being tackled for example, the brain continues to move in the CSF until it hits the next solid surface – the inside of the skull. Sure a helmet will protect the skull, but it cannot protect the brain. If this happens enough times, the nerve fibers break off and proteins start to build up in the brain leaving scar tissue. That’s bad.

Concussion is a medical drama about Dr. Bennet Omalu. He works for the Allegheny County Medical Examiners Office in Pittsburgh. A forensic pathologist, Omalu conducts the autopsy on Hall of Famer Mike Webster – legendary center for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Webster had not been well. He was suffering from amnesia, dementia, depression and died from a heart attack at only 50 years old. What Omalu finds, leads to his discovery of a new disease that he names chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE in 2005. The complications of which somewhat resemble Alzheimer’s, however they occur much earlier in life. The depression, memory loss and erratic, aggressive behavior experienced by ex NFL players, continues to this day. Concussion does a nice job at emphasizing the severity of these symptoms.

Given the subject matter, this could’ve been a much more incendiary film. The research calls the very sport of professional football into question. (I assume athletes in boxing, soccer, hockey, rugby and wrestling would be at risk as well.) As you might expect, the publication of Dr. Bennet Omalu’s research is viewed as extremely controversial by the National Football league. The NFL had a choice. Join Dr. Bennet Omalu and try to solve the problem, or use their considerable power to discredit him. The NFL choose the latter and they certainly do not come off well. They’re presented as this monolithic corporate entity as headed by commissioner Roger Goodell (Luke Wilson).

Dr. Omalu’s fight to get people to acknowledge he is right, becomes a veritable David-vs.-Goliath match. He was born in Nigeria. Dr. Omalu earned his degree in medicine there before coming to the U.S. where he completed his residency. Despite all of his education, he is seen as an outsider. “They insinuated I was not practicing medicine; I was practicing voodoo,” he has said. Not only is Dr. Omalu an immigrant, he is indifferent to that quintessentially American of pastimes called football. Nevertheless he does gain a powerful ally in former Steelers team doctor Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin).

I really wanted to love this movie. Concussion has the best intentions. It dramatizes a serious story that needs to be told. At the heart of this biography is a compelling performance by Will Smith. Historically he has often had a difficult time disappearing into the persona of another person. We see mega celebrity Will Smith – the brash movie star, not an actor fading within a role. Here however, he manages to convincingly present a different personality – accent and demeanor included. It’s his most impressive achievement since The Pursuit of Happyness. Unfortunately, the diffuse narrative spends way too much time on tedious details involving his personal life which includes love interest and eventual wife, Prema Mutiso (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). She is far too great an actress to be saddled with this expendable role. Concussion is at its best when it’s delving into the science of Omalu’s work, chronicling his study and the ensuing struggle to get his important research acknowledged. The production ends unresolved. According to the film, his research still has yet to be taken seriously by the NFL. Although some concessions have been made, very little about the sport has changed. Apparently the issue is far from over. Stay tuned.

12-29-15

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10 Responses to “Concussion”

  1. I’m with you on the disappointment factor, albeit for slightly different reasons. I took a more technical approach to it, looking at how the NFL comes off in the movie. It’s a bold movie to make and extremely timely not just in terms of the issues (RIP Junior Seau) but with the playoffs looming large. I realize the story is more about focusing on the medical aspects, but the NFL really doesn’t factor in enough for me to be convinced this movie was trying to actually make them wake up to these horrifying truths. And the casting of Luke Wilson as Roger Goodell all but epitomized the fact that he still wants nothing to do with all of this controversy. For shame.

    But you’re totally right; the romantic element didn’t work well for me either. Mbatha-Raw deserves better material.

    Solid review

    • I liked the fight Dr. Omalu tried to wage against the NFL. They pretty much deflected any controversy in order to maintain their brand. Meanwhile people continue to suffer, albeit willingly, in service of the game. I feel like this story is still playing out in the public arena. There’s more revelations and sadly more deaths to come.

  2. Good review. I agree that the film sidetracks unnecessarily and in all possible directions looking for drama, and this is where lies the fault. However, I cannot agree with you that the movie’s focus on Dr. Omalu’s love interest is the issue here. On the contrary, I greatly enjoyed seeing Omalu with his new love interest, and their interactions are sweet and interesting to watch, enhancing Dr. Omalu’s character study, in fact. Who has too much screen time here is Alec Baldwin.

    • I’ll concede Alec Baldwin’s role could’ve been shortened, but other than the widows of the players, Dr. Julian Bailes was the only counterpoint to all the negative criticism he received from the NFL. He was the silver lining.

  3. Great review. I’ll probably see this later.

  4. It’s a shame that Concussion isn’t more incendiary given its juicy subject matter. Also it’s too bad that the movie focuses more on Omalu’s personal life than on the interesting science behind is work. However I am happy to hear that Smith manages to disappear into this role instead of coming off like he usually does, as Will Smith. Sounds like based on the film’s ending that we should be more upset about all the proceedings. Shame that we don’t and that no real progress has been made with the issue.

  5. misery chick Says:

    Hi Mark! Nice review. Wondering if you think Will Smith was worthy (or even in the ballpark) of an Oscar nom?

    • I think it was in the realm of possibly. He stretches himself with this role. However, the actual nominations are exactly what I expecting. Anything different would have been a surprise.

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