Entertainment

‘Concussion’ gets inside your head

What It’s About

One committed doctor helped force the NFL to realize the gravity of brain trauma in players. “Concussion” tells the hard-hitting story others wanted to ignore.

Using the GQ article “Game Brain” as source material, writer-director Peter Landesman (“Parkland”) formats this as a social injustice underdog battle, in the same vein as “Erin Brockovich” and “Silkwood.” He names names and points fingers, fully realizing the grip football has on our American sports culture.

The crusading docudrama unfolds in a typical procedural fashion, with strong performances from a sprawling cast.

In a bravura turn among his career best, Will Smith is Nigerian-born Dr. Bennet Omalu, a pathologist working in the Pittsburgh morgue in 2002. He is assigned an autopsy of “Iron Mike”Webster, a Hall of Fame Steeler, dead at 50.

Through his investigation, after being alarmed at Webster’s brain condition, he describes his finding as “chronic traumatic encephalopathy.”

Previously, the common diagnosis was early onset Alzheimer’s or dementia. Patterns of drugs, depression and suicide among fallen heroes emerge.

Like a dog with a bone, Omalu is committed to exposing more cases of CTE among our golden warriors. He is met with resistance, naturally, but those in his corner are his blustery boss Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks) and remorseful former NFL team doctor Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin).

Targeted as the villain, the NFL tries to block the “outsider” doctor at various turns. The facts can’t be denied, and ultimately, the little guy’s right wins over the big monolith’s might.

“Concussion Protocol” and dialogue on the extreme hits pro athletes receive is now part of the national conversation.

And it all started in with a tragic death of a sports legend in Pittsburgh.

Performances

Smith not only gets the accent right, but the mannerisms of a thoughtful, intelligent man with a few personality quirks. Dr. Omalu is an immigrant whose unwavering belief in the goodness of America and that he must always do the right thing drives him.

In an integral performance, David Morse (“The Green Mile”) is hearbreaking as “Iron Mike” Webster, whose descent into madness was the tipping point. Living in his pickup truck, drug addicted and in serious decline, Morse is haunting as a man in crisis.

Another noteworthy role is Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje a Dave Duerson, a Chicago Bear star who kills himself at age 50 and leaves a note for his brain to be donated for research.

Both Brooks and Baldwin are aces in solid supporting roles. Mbatha-Raw plays Omalu’s supportive wife Prema.

What Works

When it focuses on the crucial findings, the movie is gripping.

What Doesn’t Work

When it expands the story beyond the topic at hand — corny attempts at domestic life insight, for instance — it’s not as successful.

“Concussion” pretty much screams its point in capital letters. But the urgency the filmmakers feel is warranted. The NFL failed a lot of its players, and the epilogue sums up how the league has addressed the accusations.

‘Concussion’

  • Director: Peter Landesman
  • Cast: Will Smith, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Albert Brooks, Alec Baldwin, David Morse, Luke Wilson, Eddie Marsan, Mike O'Malley, and Stephen Moyer.
  • Rated PG-13 (thematic material including some disturbing images and language)
  • 123 minutes
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