I first became aware of this film during the pre-Oscars diversity row, with Will Smith’s performance being one highlighted as overlooked. With the film not then out in the UK, it’s taken me a bit of time to be able to judge it for myself.
Based on a true story, Smith plays Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian-born doctor and pathologist, who in 2002 became the focus of the greater American football-loving public when he identified the disease CTE, a discovery which had wide implications for those who play America’s favourite sport.
Already an outsider in his workplace, Omalu is on duty when former football star Mike Webster is found dead and brought to the coroner’s office. Despite being only 50 years old and having no obvious symptoms, Webster had seemingly gone mad before his death. Perhaps due to his lack of respect for the game and all those involved in it, Omalu conducts a far more comprehensive autopsy – only to discover the shocking truth of Webster’s brain. The science points one way – playing football and being repeatedly hit in the head (in his life Omalu estimates Webster experienced 70,000+ blows to his head), at so high a g-force, resulted in killer proteins being released in the brain. In the film Omalu talks of this strangling his mind, like pouring wet concrete down kitchen pipes, which results in neurological effects that left him unrecognisable.
The resulting medical journal paper on the discovery led to great anger from those involved in the game and those who are devoted to it. Perhaps only someone who wasn’t American could be willing to have seen the truth of the risks football players put themselves through every time they set foot on the field.
The film is a fascinating insight in to one man’s brave fight to bring a truth to the public’s attention, one that they perhaps would not wish to know. Will Smith is wonderful in the role. He brings an emotional passion to Omalu’s determination to give the dead men and the science a voice. He may not have done many great roles recently, but for me this one was a very strong performance (and indeed one worthy of recognition in the nominees lists). It reminded me a bit of another character in a film this year – another principled man doing what was right, not what was easy – that was Tom Hanks’s character in Bridge of Spies (who was another actor who missed out on nominations this year). I felt equally inspired by both characters and actors.
There are other strong supporting performances too. Alec Baldwin does a fine job as the conflicted former football team doctor, who cannot bear seeing more die and so stands behind Omalu. Albert Brooks has a wonderful role as Omalu’s boss, someone who admires his ability and courage throughout and although the plotline involving Omalu’s romance with her is less developed, British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw continues to build a strong career in her role as Prema.
As a British citizen I watched the film and found it surprising that people were shocked at the likely dangers to people playing such an aggressive and physical sport. It seems logical when you think about what the body (especially the head) is put through during a game. Similar discussions have also recently started to come to the surface more in the UK too about rugby.
In the same way tobacco companies had to admit to a mistake in their view on the risk of cancer, the NFL has had to take this issue much more seriously. The film quotes a statistic that according to actuaries hired by the NFL, 28% of all professional football players will suffer from serious cognitive impairment, including CTE. It’s certainly a powerful message, although it seems quite strange that by the end of the film nothing really changes, which proves a little unsatisfying.
Will what is a religion to many Americans lose its popularity due to this film? That seems very unlikely, but it is surely vital that all those involved in the sport are given the information they need to understand the risks. All of that is thanks to Omalu’s work. Crucially too, this film will bring its subject matter to a wider public and that can only be for the greater good.
A fascinating, intelligent and well acted film; I, unlike most film reviewers it seems, enjoyed Concussion. Perhaps watching it on a plane off on holiday put me in a better mood, but despite what a lot of critics say about it, I still think it’s worth watching.