Concussion, written and directed by Peter Landesman, establishes two things right away: extreme reverence for football, shown in a Hall of Fame acceptance speech by Pittsburgh Steeler “Iron Mike” Webster (David Morse), and the bona fides of Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith), a well-educated Nigerian immigrant and forensic neuropathologist in the Pittsburgh coroner’s office. These are the film’s two conflicting forces: the love of the game and the undeniability of science.
Dr. Omalu is curious and sensitive, excited about his work; he asks his bodies to help him find out what happened to them. This is where Iron Mike ends up: living out of his truck, tormented by voices in his head, dead at 50. Needing to know why, Omalu discovers something that one of the most powerful organizations in the country wants to keep quiet.
It’s a new disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathycaused by repeated head injuries common among football players, boxers and wrestlers. His findings dare to suggest that playing football could be a hazard to one’s health. This isn’t something that the NFL wants its players — or aspiring college and high school players — to know.
Smith portrays Omalu as caring and determined, an outsider who isn’t beholden to football. He believes in the American dream, and he’s appalled that players, dreamers themselves, are tossed aside when they no longer have monetary value.
Concussion glosses over some of the connective tissue that would better demonstrate Omalu’s work. It also lingers on scenes where he struggles with his rationalization for speaking up, trying to persuade others to do the right thing. This feels like an appeasement to the NFL itself, to show the struggle in taking the league on.
It’s hard to watch Concussion and not feel infuriated about the systems of power that exploit bodies for profit and have the gall to not take care of these people. One can’t help but think that to remain a fan of the NFL or college football is to be party to an exploitative organization. The film ends on a note that essentially says it’s OK to love the sport, just that we should take care of our players. Seems a fair compromise, but for a film that wants to hit hard, where it hurts, at the end, it seems to shy away from direct impact.
PG-13 for thematic material including some disturbing images, and language. 2:03. Fayette Mall, Frankfort, Georgetown, Hamburg, Richmond, Winchester, Woodhill.