by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday December 25, 2015

Will Smith stars in 'Concussion'
Will Smith stars in 'Concussion'  (Source:Columbia Pictures)

When, in 2002, Nigerian-born pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu peered through a microscope at samples of brain tissue taken from once-renowned Pittsburg Steelers football player Mike Webster and saw a pattern of neurological destruction, he found himself on a path to controversy that continues to this day.

What Omalu realized -- and, according to the new Will Smith film "Concussion," the NFL went to lengths to stifle -- was that over time the repeated hits players sustain throughout their careers can slosh and jostle their brains into a state of disease. Dementia, anger issues, depression, and memory problems can all result -- and with them, destructive behaviors and self-medication attempts that can turn into alcoholism and drug abuse.

As unwelcome as the news might have been -- and still is; keep your eyes peeled when watching football games for the occasions on which a coach will tend a downed player's knee or other body part while the player, who has just got clocked pretty hard on the noggin, blinks the stars out of his eyes -- it did eventually lead to changes (some nominal, some substantive) in how football players, from the pro leagues to the little leagues, are now protected and monitored so as to prevent them getting concussed.

But the controversy around Omalu has taken on a second life with charges that he has exaggerated his role in discovering and defining what is now widely known as "chronic traumatic encephalopathy." Well before 2002 and the case of Mike Webster, athletes were the subject of medical inquiry focused on the long-term effects of routine physical punishment on the brain and its functions. A recent Associated Press article notes that as early as the 1920s boxers were the subject of medical scrutiny, and in 1949 the term "chronic traumatic encephalopathy" (CTE) was used in a paper by Macdonald Critchley on the condition as suffered by pugilists.

Bennet claims to have named the disease, and he may well have done so. Scientific language has its own rather narrow sets of rules and conventions and independent, identical nomenclature is certainly not outside the realm of possibility. Still, the debate continues as to whether Bennet has tried to take too much credit.

However it happened, Bennet did find himself in the middle of a firestorm as passionate fans of the sport -- including players and NFL officials -- sought to suppress and discredit his findings. The issue of whether Bennet knew of earlier, boxer-focused research or not is overshadowed by the fascinating mechanics of denial.

With all this as ready fodder, the movie version should be far juicier and more urgent. Instead, it's slack to the point of lackadaisical. From the start, we get too much about how Bennet whispers to the corpses he's preparing to dissect as he sets about performing autopsies at the Allegheny County Coroner's office -- the job he was doing when Webster died. (It's a practice that, as shown here, sharpens the resentments at least one surly coworker.)

We also get far too much of Smith bubbling over -- with optimism, with compassion, with religiosity. A little sweetness and fizz goes a long way in a drama, and it's almost as if Smith can't rein in his comedian's propensity for day-glo emoting. At times the clarity of his factually-rooted convictions in the medical phenomenon he's attempting to bring to the NFL's attention is treated almost as a form of mysticism; the result is that the film treats Bennet as a thinly disguised "magical Negro," an outdated Hollywood trope that was risible in decades past and is contemptible to modern eyes.

The film does score the occasional touchdown (if you'll pardon the sports metaphor). Alec Baldwin appears as Dr. Julian Bailes, a former NFL doctor once associated with the Steelers; he serves as the bridge between fact-based recognition of CTE and gut-level protectiveness of America's defining sports tradition. The film uses Bailes to anchor Bennet's research to the realm of practicality, when it would have been better off allowing Bennet to do more of that for his own work. True, Bailes is part of the good ol' (white) boys network that sets NFL policy, and it's Bailes the establishment is more likely to listen to; but as portrayed here, Bennet has a naive, and saintly, aspect that's seldom challenged, and then only superficially. (How can a man with a veritable shelf-load of degrees and an unusual breadth of life experience possibly be so gormless about human, and institutional, nature?)

The film seeks to humanize Bennet by focusing -- again, far too much -- on his romance with a Kenyan woman named Prema Mutiso (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Even here, though, Bennet is painted in a saintly glow that quickly wears thin. At times the movie comes across as a thriller as directed by Frank Capra -- with the added exasperation at how the thriller elements (menacing phone calls, thuggish feds pursuing overtly ridiculous investigations as a means of petty intimidation, a sequence in which Prema's car is tailed by another vehicle in a suspect manner) tend to appear out of nowhere and then simply evaporate. Such ham-handed tactics don't raise tension; they diminish credibility.

There are deliberately comic moments, and they are not misplaced. Albert Brooks plays Bennet's boss, Dr. Cyril Wecht, with sardonic brio; he props up the film when Smith's own comic instincts awkwardly intrude, and his humane, rough-edged graciousness makes Smith's rendition seem gimmicky and insincere by comparison.

"Concussion" should live up to its theme (and its title) and rattle your brains a little; instead, it taxes one's patience.



Dr. Bennet Omalu :: Will Smith
Dr. Julian Bailes :: Alec Baldwin
Prema Mutiso :: Gugu Mbatha-Raw
Dr. Joseph Maroon :: Arliss Howard
Dr. Elliot Pellman :: Paul Reiser
Roger Goodell :: Luke Wilson
Dave Duerson :: Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje
Mike Webster :: David Morse
Justin Strzelczyk :: Matthew Willig
Dr. Cyril Wecht :: Albert Brooks
Andre Waters :: Richard Jones


Director :: Peter Landesman
Screenwriter :: Peter Landesman
Producer :: Ridley Scott
Producer :: Giannina Scott
Producer :: David Wolthoff
Producer :: Larry Shuman
Producer :: Elizabeth Cantillon
Executive Producer :: Michael Schaefer
Executive Producer :: David Crockett
Executive Producer :: Ben Waisbren
Executive Producer :: Bruce Berman
Executive Producer :: Greg Basser
Cinematographer :: Salvatore Totino
Film Editor :: William Goldenberg
Original Music :: James Howard
Production Design :: David Crank
Art Director :: Tom Frohling
Costume Designer :: Dayna Pink
Casting :: Lindsay Graham
Casting :: Mary Vernieu


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Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.