Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The doctor who fought the NFL

The story of one-man's battle to warn against the damage of concussions.
Concussion, a movie about the dangers of playing pro-football, may not be a classic, but it's worth seeing, particularly for Will Smith's highly concentrated performance as Dr. Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian born pathologist who identified brain trauma in a number of deceased NFL veterans.

Also -- and more important -- there's the subject of the movie; i.e., the dangers of prolonged football careers that can ruin lives, leading to dementia, violent outbursts, depression and even suicide.

The movie begins when Omalu, working in the Pittsburgh coroner's office, decides to do an autopsy on former Steelers star Mike Webster, rendered in small, early scenes by an appropriately alarming David Morse.

Omalu takes a detective's approach to his work; he respectfully talks to corpses, encouraging them to yield their secrets before he cuts them open. Eventually, he discovers that Webster suffered from CTE, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, the result of repeated blows to the head.

If you've been reading the papers, you know that the NFL originally paid little attention to the brain traumas caused by repeated hits. That makes for the movie's tension: Omalu's findings weren't welcomed by an organization that's heavily invested in a game that thrives on violence. (And, no, I'm not being holier than thou. I watch and enjoy professional football, too.)

Concussion, which was directed by Peter Landesman (Parkland), tells the straightforward story of a physician who worked hard to bring the truth of CTE to light and who also confronted racial prejudice, an aspect of the story that probably should have received more attention.

Smith masters Omalu's accent and gives a memorable performance as a doctor who's sure of himself, sometimes to the point of annoyance: Not everyone admires Omalu's persistence and some believe that he refuses to understand the importance of football in the city's communal life. They're right.

Albert Brooks gives a notable performance as Omalu's boss, one of the few doctors who takes his side. Alec Baldwin may be a bit miscast as a former Steelers physician who comes to see the light about the terrible consequences of head injuries and the athletic culture that produces them.

There's also a romance when Omalu meets Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a Kenyan nurse who becomes his wife, as well as an important part of his support system.

It's not easy to buy Luke Wilson as NFL commissioner Pete Godell, but Smith and Landesman put their story over with enough conviction to make us a tad uncomfortable the next time we sit down for an afternoon of hard-hitting football. We're fans, yes, but let's be real: We're also enablers.

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