If the NFL was honest, it would have to hide its head in shame.
Director Peter Landesman’s Concussion is a searing indictment of the National Football League. For all of its beauty, grace and power, it is a sport where the owners intentionally hid from the players and fans the damaging consequences flowing from the brutality of the game.
In his best performance in years, Will Smith plays Dr. Bennet Omalu, an immigrant physician from Nigeria working as a coroner in Pittsburgh in 2002. Accidentally called upon to examine the remains of Mike Webster (memorably played by David Morse), a legendary Pittsburgh Steeler, he was the first to recognize the damage caused to the human brain flowing from repeated football concussions. Initially ridiculed by the league and its many wealthy supporters, the death of multiple former players at a young age finally led to the acknowledgment of the brain trauma known as CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy).
As noted in the film, the popularity of the NFL has led to its domination of Sunday, replacing the position previously held by churches throughout our land. Helped by cities who donate taxpayers’ money to build massive stadiums, owners make a fortune as millions of Americans become entranced with the game. You can’t help but be reminded of cheering crowds packing the old Roman Coliseum thousands of years ago as gladiators fought to the death.
The film is immensely helped by supporting performances from Albert Brooks and Alec Baldwin. Brooks appears as Dr. Cyril Wecht, Smith’s immediate supervisor who endures a federal indictment largely because of his support of Dr. Omalu’s efforts. Baldwin is also magnificent, here playing Dr. Julian Bailes, a former employee of the NFL who has the courage to support Dr. Omalu when no one else would.
However, what makes the film so emotionally rewarding is another compelling performance by Ms. Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Here, she also is a Nigerian immigrant who becomes our beleaguered coroner’s wife, and in the process enables him to find the courage and strength to fight a powerful organization’s denial of the simple truth. Both gorgeous and talented, you should take the time to see her in Belle (2013) and Beyond the Lights (2014).
Mr. Smith’s performance captures both Dr. Omalu’s wonderful accent and his refusal to buckle before the tidal wave of opposition financed by the NFL. Facing a possible federal investigation combined with questions surrounding his immigration status, Dr. Omalu remained dedicated to one overriding medical purpose, namely the truth.
Regardless of your enthusiasm for the NFL, the bottom line is that they have intentionally buried the dangers associated with their game in the same fashion that the tobacco industry did for decades. Every time you see an owner’s box during a game on Sunday, you might as well associate him with the Phillip Morris executives who knowingly sold a product that caused cancer and laughed all the way to the bank.
Let me put it this way. Knowing the connection between the traumatic effect of brain injuries suffered by close to 28% of those playing professional football, would you let your child play the game if you were his mother? If your opinion is wavering, make sure you see Concussion.