Around late 2011, I read a series of disturbing articles from New York Times. The articles were about a young professional hockey player named Derek Boogaard, and that was the first time I heard about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). While he was about to have the 29th birthday shortly before his untimely death, it was revealed via postmortem that his brain was severely suffering from CTE, which must have been caused by those countless physical traumas inflicted on his head during numerous hockey games. Even if he had not died at that time, he would not have lived that long because of the inexorable progress of this slow but ultimately fatal brain disorder.
Boogaard’s story was probably not very shocking to the real-life hero of “Concussion”, a medical/forensic expert who happened to notice a serious medical risk associated with American football and other tough popular sports like ice hockey. The movie tries to tell a dramatic story about his long, frustrating struggle against a big, formidable system willing to disregard his inconvenient medical truth in the name of publicity and profit, but it mostly plays safe with its materials while not being edgy enough to grab my attention, and I was not engaged much as sensing its apparently sanitized storytelling, which often dulls a compelling real-life human story behind it.
Looking as plain and earnest as his Oscar-nominated turn in “The Pursuit of Happyness” (2006), Will Smith plays Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian physician and forensic pathologist who has steadily built his professional career at the Allegheny County Coroner’s Office in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He is a smart, gentle, and diligent guy with impressive education background, and his decency and intelligence are clearly visible from when he gives a thoughtful forensic testimony at the court or when he respectfully and carefully handles a body to be autopsied at his workplace.
When Mike Webster’s body is sent to the coroner’s office, Omalu has no idea about how famous Webster is in Pittsburgh. Many people in Pittsburgh still remember Webster as one of the best American football players in the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers, but something went wrong not long after his retirement, and he became a broken homeless man during his final year. Although he appears only during a few early scenes, David Morse is heartbreaking as a man helplessly being pulled into the abyss of an aberrant condition his mind cannot grasp at all. He knows too well that he has problems, but he only finds himself getting more frustrated, disoriented, and isolated as his health condition keeps being deteriorated day by day.
After examining Webster’s body which looks far older than he actually is (he was only 50 at the time of his death), Omalu decides to dig deeper into his latest case. Under the permission of his boss Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), he proceeds to the microscopic examination of Webster’s brain, and he is surprised when he looks into a number of specimens prepared from Webster’s inner brain tissues. While his brain looks all right on the surface, all of the specimens show the typical pathological signs of tissue damage usually observed from Alzheimer’s disease patients.
When he later meets other experts to discuss this alarming case, he has a good theory on his forensic discovery. Human brain is usually protected well inside cranium, but, as he explains during this scene, human cranium cannot protect brain from heavy physical impacts beyond its inherent biological limit. Because they are highly sensitive in their intricate neuronal structures on which our mind depends everyday, brain tissues are irrevocably damaged whenever such impactful physical trauma is inflicted on cranium. Considering that football players are far likelier to get serious head traumas due to their frequent rough plays on the field, what happened to Webster’s brain is actually not that surprising at all.
With Dr. Wecht as one of his co-authors, Omalu publishes a paper on a medical journal for reporting what he found and deduced from Webster’s case, but, as warned to him from the beginning, his report is not received well by many people in one of the biggest sports industries in US. The National Football League (NFL) quickly tries to discredit his work while denying any association between American football and the risk of brain damage, and Omalu starts to feel pressured and cornered, though he remains to be supported by his boss and Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), who has known the problem for years as a doctor who once served the system.
The screenplay by the director Peter Landesman, which is based on Jeanne Marie Laskas’s nonfiction book “Game Brain”, tries to put some dramatic tension into its plot, but its attempt feels heavy-handled while clashing with the overall low-key tone of the film. While the NFL guys are the villains of the story as we are constantly reminded of their presence via the routine wide shots of big American football stadiums, they are no more than bland, forgettable figures, and Luke Wilson does not have many things to do except looking smug in front of the camera as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who is still occupying his position at this point. In case of the scene where Omalu’s wife Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) seems to be followed by a mysterious car behind her, it is so contrived that you can easily discern that this is purely fictional.
Will Smith did a fairly good job of dialing down his star presence and handling his character’s foreign accent without much awkwardness, but his good-natured performance is unfortunately hampered by flat characterization. When I read Laskas’s 2009 GQ magazine article from which her nonfiction book was developed, Dr. Omalu came to me as an interesting human being with whom I am willing to talk on any scientific topic, but his movie counterpart is just your average noble faultless guy in comparison. As his two main supporters, Alec Baldwin and Albert Brooks are as dependable as expected, but their main task in the movie is showing concern and resignation around Smith. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who was wonderful in “Belle” (2013) and “Beyond the Lights” (2014), has a few tender scenes with Smith, but then she is stuck in her thankless role which only demands her to look supportive or worried.
As many of you know, NFL eventually had to admit and accept what Omalu reported as more tragic cases of American football players suffering from CTE were known in public. While the risk of CTE among athletes is certainly an important matter we need to talk and discuss more about, “Concussion” fizzles without enough dramatic or social urgency, and it left me unimpressed even though I watched it with my own academic interest. I was merely confirmed of what I knew, and that was all I could get from it.