Concussion is About Football — and About Faith

Posted on January 4, 2016 at 8:00 am

Copyright Sony 2015
Copyright Sony 2015

The New Yorker has a thoughtful essay by Ian Crouch about the spiritual and religious themes in Will Smith’s fact-based movie, “Concussion.” Smith plays real-life doctor Bennet Omalu, who insisted on pursuing the issue of head trauma in professional football and its long-term impact on players.

he movie’s moral arguments are framed less as matters of medicine than of religious faith. It’s not a sports movie, or a medical thriller, so much as a Christian homily….Omalu is a kind of prophet, an outsider who can see a truth that those around him, blinded by their own cultural prejudices, cannot, and who is punished and shunned for spreading a gospel that those in power do not want to hear. This makes for a heavy-handed, often treacly movie: Will Smith’s version of Omalu is as the lone principled man in a world marred by compromise—and saints, even when they are martyrs, are boring protagonists. But as a polemic, this evangelical argument is interesting and novel, suggesting that football’s dangers are not merely physical, but spiritual as well. This might be the movie’s most subversive message: not that the N.F.L. stood in the way of scientific research about the health of its players but that it occupies a false place within the religious and patriotic beliefs of so many of its fans, whose Sabbath routines are timed perfectly so that Sunday service ends just in time for kickoff.

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Posted on December 24, 2015 at 7:54 pm

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for thematic material including some disturbing images, and language
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and drug abuse
Violence/ Scariness: Themes of severe brain trauma, dementia, substance abuse, domestic abuse, suicide
Diversity Issues: Some bigotry and xenophobia
Date Released to Theaters: December 25, 2015

Copyright Sony 2015
Copyright Sony 2015
It is a true story that seemed to have all the elements for a heartwarming, uplifting story about speaking truth to power, told with big stars and lots of Hollywood gloss. And yet, it does not work. In football terms, it’s a fumble.

Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) is a pathologist, an immigrant from Nigeria, with an assortment of degrees and certifications. He lives very quietly and is devoted to his work. When he is asked to perform an autopsy on former Pittsburgh Steelers four-ring center Mike Webster (David Morse), something does not seem right to him. His office will not authorize additional tests, so he pays for them himself: $20,000 to prepare very thin slices of Webster’s brain so that Omalu can figure out why a man who was just 50 had amnesia, depression, and dementia, with indications of brain damage normally not found until extreme old age or severe injury. The tests revealed a syndrome Omalu called CTE: chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

Omalu wanted to find out how pervasive this problem was among former professional football players. But there was a lot of money and a lot of power with no interest in finding out whether a game — no an industry — that “owns a day of the week” and employs tens of thousands of people might be so unsafe for its players that it put the future of professional football at risk.

He gets an ally in former NFL doctor Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin). And while some of his colleagues consider him a troublemaker or even a traitor, his boss (Albert Brooks) is on his side.

Art didn’t imitate life, but it was most likely shaped by it. The 2014 Sony hack revealed memos that raised concerns from studio executives about the sensitivity of the subject matter and the response of the NFL. That may be why a film about integrity and courage pulls its punches. It ramps up the implications of pressure, unpersuasively attempting to tie unrelated professional and personal setbacks to the NFL. A climactic job offer does not have the meaning that the film attempts to assign to it. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is sadly underused as the loyal spouse. And Smith himself is underused with a one-note performance that makes Omalu a cardboard figure. A movie about courage shows very little of its own.

NOTE: Slate’s Daniel Engbar contradicts some of the allegations in the film. The week of the film’s release, the NFL pulled its funding from an independent research project about the link between professional football and brain injuries.

Parents should know that this story concerns severe traumatic brain injury from professional sports with catastrophic consequences including dementia, substance abuse, domestic abuse, and suicide, as well as the obstructionist efforts by the authorities to deny the injuries, some strong language.

Family discussion: Why did Bennet Omalu pay for the additional tests? Why didn’t the NFL do more to protect its players? Who is most like Dr. Omalu in your life?

If you like this, try: “The Pursuit of Happyness”

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