Concussion Peter Landesman

Concussion Peter Landesman
Courtesy of Columbia Pictures
7
"Iron" Mike Webster was a Hall of Fame offensive lineman and four-time Super Bowl champion with the Pittsburgh Steelers in the '70s, but when he died at the age of 50 after suffering from dementia, the results of his autopsy shook the world of football to its core. Peter Landesman's Concussion is a competent but not exactly revelatory dramatization of how Webster's pathologist risked his career to expose to the world the inherent danger of the billion-dollar sport's head traumas.
 
Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) is a supremely qualified Nigerian doctor who performs unorthodox autopsies in Pittsburgh in which he uses his own specialized instruments and is known to even talk to the deceased. When the body of Webster (David Morse) ends up on the slab in front of him, Omalu can't figure out why his brain shows nothing unusual despite his symptoms — until he pays for an expensive study on his own dime and uncovers the real toll all the blows to the head have taken on Webster.
 
With the support of his boss (Albert Brooks) and a former Steelers team doctor (Alec Baldwin), Omalu publishes his discovery (a condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE) and attempts to make the NFL aware of what is happening to its players. Predictably, the rich and powerful league has little interest in acknowledging an issue that could significantly damage the brand's bottom line and attempts to turn a blind eye to Omalu's findings for as long as possible.
 
Smith inhabits the role admirably without ever quite disappearing into it, nailing the Nigerian accent but maintaining some of his own comic mannerisms and that unmistakable charm. There's a perfunctory romance that develops with Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a woman from his church who moves in with him when she needs a place to stay and begins to draw Omalu more and more out of his shell. Their rapid courtship — which begins with dancing at a club and soon sees them building a house and having kids — is rather stilted and never rises above the stakes-raising requirements of the script.
 
The film's at its best when delving into the burden of what Omalu hopes to accomplish, flirting with the same kind of menace and paranoia that characterized Michael Mann's superior exposé The Insider — in which Russell Crowe's whistleblower attempts to bring down the tobacco industry — but sadly stops short of that film's more indignant muckraking. The most incendiary accusations we get here is an NFL concussion summit being held up as an empty token gesture and Omalu being consistently harassed and harangued by league supporters for his tireless scientific investigation.
 
Given that the eventual $765 million settlement the NFL made with its aggrieved former players over the issue of concussions included a clause that allowed the league to keep private the details of how much it knew about the subject prior to Omalu's work, the film is perhaps wise to avoid too much speculation of what went on behind closed doors at the NFL offices. If that means we're stuck with a rather formulaic and occasionally didactic story of a hero's struggle to bring vital information to light against intense pressure, at least it doesn't significantly reduce the emotional impact of all that he accomplished.
 
Following his work on Mike Webster, Omalu concluded that there would only be more players that succumbed to CTE, and he was soon proven right. What remains to be seen is just how committed the NFL is to pursuing studies of a debilitating condition that could eventually render their entire sport extinct. Omalu may have pulled back the curtain on a corner of the NFL's dirty secrets, but we're still forced to wonder just how much they don't want us to know or if they're perhaps even frightened to learn the full extent of the issue themselves.


  (Sony)