Film review: CONCUSSION, from ‘Built For Speed’

Recently, the eyes of the world were fixed on the gaudy spectacle of the NFL Superbowl with its gladiator imagery and roster of superstar entertainers. Behind, the athleticism and heroism of its combatants, the Vegas-like production and the irritatingly quirky ads is a darker story of bodies and particularly brains battered by the brutal high-speed collisions between 100+ kilogram men.

Concussion explores this disturbing issue through the true story of Nigerian-American pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu’s investigation into head trauma in American football and its connection with serious brain injury. In so doing the film depicts a mostly compelling but occasionally cheesy David and Goliath battle between Omalu and the NFL and explores the discord between scientific reason and misguided masculinity.

In 2002 Dr. Omalu (Will Smith) was working as a pathologist for the Allegheny County Coroner’s Office in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania under renowned forensic scientist Dr. Cyril Wecht. While conducting an autopsy on a former NFL superstar Mike Webster (David Morse), who had sadly taken his life, Omalu discovered brain abnormalities similar to those seen in much older people with conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. Further research alongside neurosurgeon and former NFL doctor Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin) led to the conclusion that repeated head trauma caused by head clashes in football games could lead to brain damage similar to that experienced by boxers, a condition they titled Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE. This brain damage was linked to depression, cognitive decline and in some cases, suicidal behaviour. Omalu’s findings did not, however, sit well with the NFL or the vast football-loving public. According to the film, his research was initially dismissed and he even received abusive phone calls from other doctors trashing his findings, death threats from angry NFL fans and harassment from the FBI.

At the core of this film is a fascinating and important story about the dangers of professional sport and the power of big corporations to protect their interests.   For the most part scriptwriters’ Peter Landesman and Jeanne Marie Laskas (who wrote the GQ article on which this the script is based) explore these issues in a clear, engrossing at times emotionally rousing fashion. It’s also quite surprising the extent to which this film criticises the enormously powerful NFL and its management.

The film stumbles, though, when it focuses on Omalu’s personal life. The scriptwriters shoehorn in his romance with young Nigerian nurse and recent immigrant Prema Mutisto (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and through this, attempt to ratchet up the emotion and the drama, even having her followed by a sinister black sedan while driving home. Ominous music and dark, grim looking cinematography that wouldn’t be out of place in a horror movie also makes the film feel heavy- handed.

Landseman also resorts to some simplistic characterisations with the thoughtful, compassionate, church-going Omalu almost saint-like while his opponents, including an oafish and seemingly heartless fellow pathologist come close to being moustache twirling villains.

Still, Smith does an excellent job within the confines of the script as, importantly, he makes us forget that we are watching a famous Hollywood actor and instead convinces us that we are viewing a highly committed and extremely talented medical expert. Baldwin is also excellent as the guilt-ridden but courageous Bailes while Albert Brooks ads some wonderful acerbic humour as the irrepressible Wecht.

Chronic medical conditions are hardly a crowd pleasing topic but Landseman and the cast have turned this important and disturbing subject into a potent if flawed drama.

Nick’s rating: ***.

Genre: Drama/ biopic.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Peter Landesman.

Release date: 18th February 2016.

Running time: 123 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


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