Editor's note: The following is an in-depth review of “Concussion” and does contain spoilers.
The 2002 death of professional football player and former Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster would go on to spark a seven-year war with the National Football League. The man who waged that war was Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist who performed Mike Webster's autopsy.
The film begins with Omalu - played by Will Smith - working as a forensic pathologist with the Allegheny County, Pennsylvania coroner's office. The film goes back and forth between introducing Omalu as well as showing Webster's final days. It is when these two stories cross, with the death of Webster, that the movie really begins to take off.
Webster's final years were spent homeless and dealing with severe mental illness which also caused him to mutilate himself. This was not the typical behavior of one of the city's favorite sons and while Webster's brain scans were all normal, Omalu couldn't accept that there was nothing wrong with this man. Omalu ordered several tests, including the dissection and examination of Webster's brain. This was when he began to notice the abnormalities.
Will Smith attends the "Concussion" New York Premiere at AMC Loews Lincoln Square on December 16, 2015 in New York City. Image source: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images
Soon, former Steelers begin to die under increasingly disturbing circumstances, all of them exhibiting signs of mental illness prior to death. Omalu discovers the same abnormalities in all of their brains and soon names the condition chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Not long after his paper on the condition is published, Omalu begins to receive threatening calls from the NFL warning him to back off or they will destroy his career.
Refusing to succumb to the league's threats, Omalu continued his research, and his fight to get the NFL to recognize his findings.
"Concussion" is a great movie. It works as a mystery, a medical drama and a sports film. There is nothing in this film that doesn't work.
The movie takes place over the course of a decade, so it is very compressed. The film leaves the viewer with the impression that the football players studied during the course of the film all died relatively close to each other, when in reality there was a year or two in between each death. This sort of story compression is to be expected.
Smith gives a truly Oscar-worthy performance as Omalu. His Nigerian accent is flawless and he plays the role with a tremendous amount of heart and passion. It is Smith's performance that really pulls you into the film and really engrosses you in the mystery of the piece.
The film does a magnificent job of pulling the viewer into the narrative. Even though the viewer goes into the film already knowing that the plot of the movie centers around football injuries, as Omalu is researching the deaths of these players, putting the pieces together, the viewer remains on the edge of their seat following along with rapt attention.
The film also features a stand-up performance by funny man Albert Brooks, who is phenomenal as Dr. Cyril Wecht, the Allegheny County coroner and Omalu's boss. Brooks plays the role straight, but still manages to bring the same charm and humor he is known for in his more comedic films.
The film leaves the viewer on a powerful note, showing actual news footage of the suicide of San Diego Chargers linebacker Junior Seau in 2012. This ending is powerful not only because it drives home that this is an ongoing issue for professional athletes - not just football players, but also boxers and hockey players - but it also leaves the viewer a little wary of the sport, especially if they have children who are actively playing football.
In 2012, a class action lawsuit was brought against the NFL on behalf of as many as 500 former professional football players over the issue of head injuries and concussions. The lawsuit was just this year settled out of court, under the stipulation that the NFL would not have to admit what they knew or when, and that's more than a little disturbing.
The film is also not without its controversy. The family of former Chicago Bear Dave Duerson, who is depicted in the film and who committed suicide in 2011, claimed that the film's depiction of Duerson was unfair. In the film, Duerson is portrayed as confronting Omalu and calling him a quack. Duerson's family isnsits that this is "totally made up stuff."
Director Peter Landesman has stated in response that the film is "emotionally and spiritually accurate all the way through."
While the film already paints the NFL in an unflattering light, emails released during last year's Sony email hack indicate that the film was originally even more unflattering, but that scenes were cut to avoid antagonizing the league. Whether or not the NFL placed any pressure on Sony to make these changes is unknown.
"Concussion" is a wonderful movie-going experience, but it is also a movie that makes you think and makes you want to learn more about the subject matter. This is a movie that can't be recommended enough.
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