One doesn’t usually associate Christmas with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, but that’s Hollywood for you.
The origin of CTE, and the story of the man who discovered it, is the subject of “Concussion,” the new Will Smith drama opening on Christmas Day. It’s a fine film but there’s nothing merry about it.
Smith plays Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist from Nigeria working in the Allegheny County Coroner’s Office in Pittsburgh. Elsewhere in town, living in a pickup truck, is former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster (David Morse). Weber was a Hall of Famer and NFL star from the mid-70s to 1990, but by 2003 he was homeless and suffering from what appeared to be dementia. At the age of 50 he was dead.
Omalu conducts the autopsy and can’t believe that a man so young with no sign of brain damage could succumb to dementia. At his own expense, Omalu conducts a series of tests on Weber’s brain tissue. He concludes that Weber died from “chronic traumatic encephalopathy,” the result of too many years of being hit in the head while playing football. The human brain, it turns out, was not designed to take the beating that regularly occurs on game day in the National Football League.
Omalu’s findings do not sit well with the NFL, which has spent millions on its own research arguing that concussions do not present a serious health threat to its players. While the doctor finds an ally in Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), a former league doctor, the only other people to support him are his boss (Albert Brooks) and his wife (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).
If playing in the NFL is tough, taking it on in the court of public opinion is even more dangerous. Omalu finds his future and his livelihood at stake when he refuses to back down from his findings.
Directed and written by Peter Landesman and based on a 2009 GQ article by Jeanne Marie Laskas, “Concussion” is a fascinating and troubling look at the dark side of America’s Favorite Pastime” and the man who worked to expose it.
Smith gives another terrific performance, as does the rest of the cast. It’s a moving and memorable film that will make you think twice when you grimace at the sight of grown men slamming their heads into each other or the turf as you watch from the comfort of your couch this weekend.