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One wishes "Concussion" hit as hard as the football players whose lives and deaths are discussed in it, but it's still a solid introduction to the issues of brain damage among athletes.
Director and screenwriter Peter Landesman takes on this complex issue through the story of Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian-born immigrant who first quantified the link between brain injury and playing football. Omalu, played with dignity and passion by Will Smith, worked diligently as a forensic pathologist in the Allegheny County, Pa., coroner's office in Pittsburgh.
One day in 2002, Omalu was assigned to perform the autopsy on Mike Webster, the Hall of Fame center for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Webster (played by David Morse), though a star player beloved in his hometown, was battling amnesia, dementia and depression, and living in his pickup truck. Omalu's research, published in 2005, put a name to this form of brain damage: chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.
Linking CTE to the NFL, though, brought the league's machinery down on Omalu's head. As his boss, Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), points out, Omalu was challenging "a corporation that owns a day of the week." While the NFL ignores or squelches the research, Omalu does gain an important ally: Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), the former team doctor for the Steelers and a longtime friend of Webster's.
Omalu's battle to be heard, and for the truth of his research to be acknowledged, runs parallel to an equally personal story: his quiet courtship of his future wife, Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).
Landesman painstakingly details the ways the NFL buried all mention of CTE, dismissing the research and growing anecdotal evidence in an endless stream of toothless committees. The movie even suggests the league's clout in discrediting Omalu's work, challenging his medical credentials and even threatening his immigration status. The director uses well-known actors including Luke Wilson as NFL commissioner Roger Goodall and Paul Reiser as the league's main medical apologist to create an image of the NFL's corporatized wall of denial.
But the closer "Concussion" gets to drawing conclusions, to pointing fingers and naming names, the film backs away from calling out the NFL directly. Omalu's final speech, delivered to NFL players and alumni willing to buck the league's policy of denial, is surprisingly nonconfrontational, considering the bruises his reputation has suffered. Once again, the NFL is let off the hook.
More human story than exposé, this drama profiles the pathologist who found the link between football and a devastating form of brain damage.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens today.
Rating • PG-13 for thematic material including some disturbing images, and language.
Running time • 123 minutes.