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USA 2015
Directed by
Peter Landesman
123 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Sharon Hurst
3.5 stars

Concussion (2015)

Synopsis: When retired Pittsburgh Steelers football player, Mike Webster (David Morse), dies, homeless and seemingly out of his mind, local coroner Bennett Omalu (Will Smith) discovers something amiss in his brain. As more ex-players suicide or show signs of early brain disease, Omalu’s ongoing research points to a new theory – playing grid-iron football can lead to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). But football is sacred to its followers, and a huge corporate business for the National Football League so the research puts Bennett in deep conflict with the public and the organization.

This timely film tells a true story and despite its specifically American content  is important for Australians for whom AFL football also has the possibility of long term brain injury. Rest assured, there’s no need to even like these sports to find the film captivating and thought provoking. In many ways Concussion is a David and Goliath story in the Erin Brockovich manner whose portrayal of investigative research recalls the currently screening Spotlight.

There are other important layers to this story. Omalu is a doctor from Nigeria, trying to fit into American society and earn respect for his work. There are opposing doctors, mainly on the payroll of the NFL who would happily discredit him based on his background. Omalu is also a man of strong religious beliefs and sees his actions as providing a way for the dead to pass on peacefully. His habit of talking gently to the bodies brings him derision from colleagues but many of his colleagues such as Dr Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), are also firmly on his side. Chief county coroner, Dr Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), is also supportive even to the detriment of his own career as is Steven DeKosky (superbly played by Eddie Marsan), an Alzheimer’s specialist.  

The film achieves a convincing level of realism with its setting, Pittsburgh, shown in all its working class grittiness and director Landesman, himself an investigative journalist, being exacting with every small detail, using the real Omalu as an advisor (autopsy techniques are carefully recreated). Special attention is given to make-up for Morse as Webster, a man who has destroyed his mind and body over the years and telling archival sequences are used to show the brute physicality of the sport.

Will Smith really shines in this performance, one of his best I’ve seen. His Nigerian accent is persuasive, as is his embrace of the compassionate and measured style of the man he plays. His Omalu  is dignified, elegant, yet forceful and committed. Complementing him beautifully is Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Prema, Omalu’s wife, a woman of strength and wisdom. In smaller roles are Paul Reiser and Arliss Howard, as doctors who are on the payroll of the NFL. When accused of not caring for their players and told “It’s not medicine”, they respond with “It’s business”, cutting to a core theme of this film – the economic bottom line overriding basic humanity.

It took 10 years, from 2002 to 2012, for Omalu’s research to get to the public. After all the smear campaigning there has now been vindication and recognition of the work of this dedicated man. Concussion captures in careful balance both the science of that work and the spirit of the man and gives respectful credit to those football players who have lost their lives. Let’s hope a film of this nature helps keep the corporate sporting bodies, Australian and American, alert to the well-being of their players. 




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