Concussion Tells a Hard Truth; The NFL Blocks It
- Christian Hamaker Contributing Film and Culture Writer
- 2015 24 Dec
DVD Release Date: March 29, 2016
Theatrical Release Date: December 25, 2015
Rating: PG-13 for thematic material including some disturbing images, and language
Run Time: 123 min.
Director: Peter Landesman
Cast: Will Smith, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, David Morse, Albert Brooks, Luke Wilson, Eddie Marsan, Daniel Sullivan
Two key exchanges in Concussion, the new drama about the still emerging head-trauma controversy confronting the NFL, are central to the film’s meaning.
“Tell the truth!” Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith, The Pursuit of Happyness) shouts at a defender of the NFL's policies who has advised Omalu to back off his findings of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) among deceased former players. Later, Omalu's wife, Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Larry Crowne), sensing her husband's weakening resolve to continue highlighting his research, tells him, "When you have the truth, the thing you cannot do is the thing you must do."
This story about the toll professional football takes on its players, not just on the field but in the years after their retirement, has all the excitement of the game, as Omalu fights to get his findings heard and the NFL attempts to quash the research and science. The research into CTE is still a new field, but the mounting evidence about the bodily damage its players sustain isn't up for debate in Concussion. If you're skeptical of CTE and any responsibility the NFL might bear for that condition, this isn't the movie for you. (For a rebuttal to the film's connection of CTE to suicide specifically, see this excellent article).
No, the drama in the story is whether or not anyone will speak against the powerful forces standing opposed to any finding that might threaten the NFL and the future of football. Or, in short, whether key individuals in the film will simply tell the truth as revealed by their scientific inquiries. With faith further informing the main characters' decisions, Concussion becomes an intriguing, effective spiritual drama that's sure to come under attack by the NFL and its defenders.
Omalu, trained as a forensic pathologist (“the science of death," he calls it) in Nigeria, discovers and names CTE after digging into the causes behind the demise of former Pittsburgh Steelers Center Mike Webster, who died at the early age of 50.
Resisting pressure from co-workers to settle for acceptable diagnoses such as a simple heart attack or early Alzheimer's as the reasons behind Webster's death, Omalu can't rest until he discovers what happened to this former all-pro player. That drive costs him financially (he pays out of his pocket for tests on Webster's brain) and personally (he receives ugly anonymous phone calls related to his pursuit of the truth). His tests point to a new kind of illness, CTE—a condition found to be shared by several other players who subsequently die by their own hands.
Once he gets the support of his boss, the respected Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks, The Simpsons Movie), Omalu publishes his research, but the publicity the findings generate is more than matched by the NFL's pushback against Omalu. Recognizing an emerging crisis, the league seeks to discredit Omalu and his supporters, going so far as to indict Wecht on a series of charges designed to sully his reputation (the charges were later dropped).
Chased out of Pittsburgh, Omalu finds a new life in another part of the country and hopes for a future moment of vindication.
Smith is outstanding as Omalu—this is his most affecting performance since The Pursuit of Happyness in 2006—and supporting players David Morse (The Hurt Locker) and Brooks bring gravitas and dignity to their key supporting roles (their makeup, on the other hand, leaves something to be desired). Raw, who ascended to the top tier of working actresses with her performances in Beyond the Lights (2014) and Belle (2013), does as much as she can with a role that's only slightly more complex than the stand-by-your-man female characters often seen in male-star vehicles.
The film descends into a routine thriller in its transition from medical-research drama to paranoid thriller, as Omalu and his wife are tormented for making an enemy of the NFL. A jarring time-frame jump almost completely derails the film, which barely manages to recover by its closing moments.
What remains consistent throughout Concussion is Omalu's faith, although it's pictured in ways that will present challenges to some Christians. Raised Catholic, Omalu speaks to the cadavers he's autopsying to enlist the help of their departed spirits in determining the cause of death. Also odd is the directive of Omalu's priest, who, after a service that includes hymns acknowledging "the saving power of our God" and proclaiming "how great is our God," asks Omalu to open his home to a woman from Nairobi. That's an odd request for a priest to make of a single (at the time) man, but the priest is convinced of Omalu's integrity, telling him, "I feel God in you" and entrusting the woman to Omalu's keeping. A romance develops, and soon the two are married (a scene at the conclusion of an early date suggests premarital sex, although nothing is explicitly shown).
Scripture tells us that the truth will set us free. We know that God is truth, and that Satan is the father of lies. The spiritual struggle of Omalu in Concussion is one all believers confront to some degree—how to open people's eyes when they are too comfortable with a system that supports and sustains a lie.
As an NFL-loving movie critic, Concussion left me wondering how my own behavior needs to change in light of what's become painfully obvious: the NFL succeeds because its fans refuse to hold it to account. If we accept the status quo, things will only get worse for the league's players. What does the league owe its players after their playing days are over? What should we, as fans of the league's products, demand of the organization? And if the NFL doesn't respond, or continues to obfuscate over this issue (and others, such as the medical plight of former players), what's our next step?
While Concussion doesn't end with a call to action, it provides a useful impetus to further investigation of CTE. I'm beginning my research with the book League of Denial, by Mark Fainaru-wada and Steve Fainaru, which delves into this issue. Whatever Concussion's shortcomings might be, the NFL has a long way to go in re-earning my trust that it's on the right side of the CTE debate.
CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):
- Language/Profanity: Lord’s name taken in vain; several uses of foul language, including violent threats
- Drinking/Smoking/Drugs: Ex-players are shown dealing with pain as they deteriorate physically; one player tasers himself; drinking at a bar
- Sex/Nudity: Dr. Omalu is told he needs to “touch somebody alive” rather than spend a single life examining corpses; he kisses Prema and enters a room in his home with her, implying sex; they get married and are later seen lying in bed next to each other
- Violence/Crime: Football collisions; during autopsies, we see Dr. Omalu cut into corpses, and blood splatters those standing nearby; organs are removed from corpses and weighed; an ex-player trashes his house and threatens his wife and children; a man driving a vehicle crashes, and the car is engulfed in flames; discussion of methods used in suicides; Prema recounts being attacked in America; Prema is followed while driving and feels threatened by those who oppose her husband; a wall in a home is destroyed; a gun is cocked off-screen; while giving a presentation, Dr. Omalu sees the ghost of a dead football player in an audience
- Religion/Morals/Marriage: Dr. Omalu believes the soul lives on after the body dies, so he speaks to corpses before performing an autopsy, seeking their help in finding answers to why they died; Dr. Omalu’s priest tells him, “I feel God in you” and asks him to take in a female roommate; during the church service, we hear hymns that include the lyrics “the saving power of God” and “how great is our God”; Prema says grace before a meal; a characters says, “God did not intend for us to play football,” and another responds, “Let’s keep God out of this”; a character says that in certain parts of the country, God is number 1, and football is number 2; Dr. Omalu says he envisioned America as just below heaven, and as a place where God sent his favorite people to be the manifestation of what God wanted them to be; Prema says that after she was attacked, she trusted God’s wisdom for her life; Dr. Omalu says he’s perceived as an “African voodoo doctor” who is supposed to “cleanse sins”; Dr. Omalu talks to his unborn child and asks the child to ask God to help Omalu; a plea to forgive others, and ourselves; the NFL is said to own a day of the week—the same day the church used to own
Publication date: December 25, 2015