‘Concussion’ Is a Knockout

Well, not quite. But Will Smith turns in a sober performance as the doctor who blew the whistle on head injuries in the NFL.

Inside Peter Landesman and Will Smith’s Concussion is an intriguing puzzle box of real-world issues: workplace safety, racial and cultural alienation, the negative effects of big business, and the appeal of violence in American society. The hubbub begins in 2002, when Nigerian immigrant Dr. Bennet Omalu (Smith), a forensic neuropathologist in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania coroner’s office, begins to notice a mysterious prevalence of dementia among otherwise strong middle-aged men who have something in common: All of them played professional football.

After performing autopsies on recently deceased ex-players, it becomes clear to Dr. Omalu that repetitive head-banging is damaging the players’ brains and causing them to experience excruciating pain and agonizing death long after they retire from the game. His diagnosis: Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. Translation: Head injuries from football can make you crazy. Old Steeler heroes are going cuckoo at an alarming rate.

In the interest of safety and scientific research, Dr. Omalu tries to alert government officials and football people — players, coaches, the National Football League — but he runs into resistance. Pittsburgh, home of the Steelers, is the epitome of a football town. People there love the game and refuse to believe that hard hits are anything more than the right way to win. Moreover, who is this African doctor, a man who knows almost nothing about American football, to be telling them their favorite sport is a menace to public health? Denial stiffens into outright hostility.

Omalu is not only challenging the NFL, he’s seen as attacking a cherished American institution. Smith turns in a sober, “mature” performance as high-minded Dr. Omalu, with Gugu Mbatha-Raw (from Belle) as his supportive wife and Albert Brooks, Alec Baldwin, and David Morse in well-thought-out support. The Omalu role is exactly the type of part Sidney Poitier would have played fifty years ago, so in that respect we haven’t come a long way, baby. But helmet safety and penalizing excessively violent tackles come under the same general safety heading as anti-smoking and auto seatbelt laws. Omalu has everyone’s welfare in mind, rather than protecting the humongous profits professional football generates every week, at the expense of the gladiators who eventually get cut loose to deal with the headaches on their own.

Concussion, adapted by director Landesman from a GQ magazine article by Jeanne Marie Laskas, gives us the same satisfaction we get from cheering the do-gooders in Spotlight or Trumbo — courageous individuals stand up to oppose the crimes of big-money villains, and everyone benefits. When you watch the Super Bowl on TV this February, remember Dr. Bennet Omalu.

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