Every Sunday during the fall and early winter throngs of people file into various stadiums across the country to spend three hours watching muscular behemoths hurl their massive bodies at each other as the 32 teams in the National Football League battle it out to for a chance at the grand prize – a trip to the Super and winning the Lombardi Trophy.
I’m a lifelong football fan. My father played and coached the game, and I played (not very well) in both high school and college. And both my sons participated in the sport. Despite watching myriad games and seeing numerous injuries occur, I never really gave much thought to how harmful the game can be to a player until I learned about the Mike Webster case.
“Iron Mike,” a Hall of Famer and perennial all-pro center, was the anchor of the Steelers’ offensive line during the glory years, but 17 years of sustaining blows to the head every Sunday during football season ultimately took its toll. Webster’s untimely death at the age of just 50 in 2002 not only shocked and saddened the sports world, but it also initiated a discovery that hit the NFL harder than a head-on tackle by an all- pro linebacker.
When Dr. Bennet Omalu performed the autopsy on Webster, he found a condition he named chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive brain disease caused by repeated blows to the head. Naturally Omalu’s discovery upset the NFL authorities because it called attention to the inherent danger of playing football.
Now, this whole matter is the subject of a fascinating new film titled “Concussion” starring Academy Award nominee Will Smith in what may very well be the best performance of his career. In fact, he’s already earned a Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal of Omalu in the movie.
“Concussion” is based upon “Brain Game,” an article written for GQ magazine by Jeanne Marie Laskas in 2009 in which she delineated Omalu’s discovery of CTE and his subsequent battle to have the NFL admit that it was a real problem. After Laskas sold the movie rights to the article, Random House approached her to expand the story into a book, which also is titled “Concussion.”
As the film begins, we find Omalu (Smith) working as a forensic pathologist in the Allegheny County coroner’s office in Pittsburgh under the supervision of legendary county coroner Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks). Although those who work with Omalu respect him for his skills, they do find him a bit eccentric because he insists on talking to bodies as he’s performing autopsies on them.
In the meantime former Steelers great Mike Webster (portrayed in heart-breaking fashion by David Morse) is in bad shape. He has lost all his money, is behaving in a bizarre manner, and is living in his pickup truck. A short time latter Webster’s body is discovered in the truck, and Omalu is assigned to do the autopsy. What begins as a routine job for Omalu soon evolves into anything but that when the doctor discovers a shocking abnormality in Webster’s brain. Omalu names the condition chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and subsequently publishes a paper about it, but the NFL refuses to recognize the validity of it, and the battle is on.
Even though Omalu finds CTE in three other former NFL players who died, the NFL staunchly refused to take Omalu and his work seriously, but Omalu remained steadfast in his position. And when you see the film, you will learn what ultimately happens.
“Concussion” is an important film because it calls attention to a growing problem among those who play football and endure excessive blows to the head. In fact when you see one demonstration about a brain in the film, the whole idea of subjecting it to the kind of punishment it receives in football is downright frightening.
Smith’s brilliant performance in the film certainly should earn him an Oscar nomination. Not only does he have Omalu’s accent down pat, but he also studied the doctor’s mannerisms. In the film’s production notes director Peter Landesman (“Kill the Messenger”) explained how important it was for Smith to observe Omalu at work.
“It was interesting taking Will to autopsies. What interested me was watching the skill set and the mechanics of performing the autopsy. It was crucial for me that Will was able to watch Bennet’s methodology and to capture it as closely as he could. For both of us to understand the physical dance of a man around a table, cutting up a body — the choreography and rhythm of the hands and the feet. Bennet’s lab and table were immaculate. If he got a speck of blood on his mask or sleeve, he’d immediately change his uniform. I wanted Will to understand how important it was that Bennet’s pristine methodology matched the investment he had in these bodies as souls. He had a relationship with the dead.”
In this film Smith accomplishes that rare feat when instead of simply playing a part, the actor actually becomes the person he’s playing. In an online interview with NPR’s David Greene, Smith explained what he gained from the film.
“This is probably the farthest role away from me that I’ve ever played, but it was exhilarating. You know, Will Smith with a Nigerian accent could go really, really wrong. But it was a high degree of difficulty, which for me was part of the pleasure of it.
“I’m 47 years old and there’s an experience as an actor when you actually get to put on someone’s life — you’re actually wearing another person for three or four or five months. So when you do that, you naturally take things away. And there’s a deep commitment to service and truth that Dr. Omalu has, and I like how it felt to wear that.”
Although some have interpreted the film as an indictment against football, Omalu doesn’t see it that way as he pointed out in an online interview with Peter Chattaway.
“There is nothing that could be better than an enlightened people. That is what this movie is about. And when I discovered CTE, that was my objective, to enhance the lives of others, to enhance football. So I cannot be anti-football if my objective is to enhance football, to enhance our lives, to enhance the lives of those who love football. In fact, you could even say that this movie is about saving football!”
“Concussion” is a powerful, disturbing, and thought-provoking film featuring Smith at the top of his game. The scenes depicting the autopsies are fascinating, and the shots of Pittsburgh are spectacular. The only negative thing I found was that some of the scenes became a bit too talky. Nevertheless, it’s an important movie about a courageous doctor, and it earns the final score of an impressive eight. And if I knew back then what I know now, I probably never would have donned the shoulder pads and helmet.