At AFI Fest, ‘Concussion’ throws down a gauntlet to the NFL

12 Nov 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Concussion review – Will Smith battles NFL in hoary but well-meaning drama.

Actor Will Smith, a self-described “football dad,” said he felt conflicted about starring in the new film Concussion as the doctor who discovered brain trauma, a leading factor in the deaths of some former National Football League (NFL) players.Concussion delivers a hard hit to the NFL as it deals with data linking repeated blows to the heads of its players to dementia and a host of other problems.There is a scene in the movie —which I saw Wednesday at a sneak preview in Manhattan—where former Chicago Bears defensive back Dave Duerson and former Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Andre Waters get into a heated exchange outside the ‘s offices in Manhattan. Often, such efforts are based on timely, true stories that outrage and uplift in equal measure – films like The Blind Side (which won Sandra Bullock an Oscar), or more recently, Dallas Buyers Club (which managed the same feat for Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey).

The league’s rocky dealings with Dr Bennet Omalu, who identified a degenerative disease in football players known as CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, are the focus of the movie’s second hour. The NFL said on Wednesday that it “welcomed any conversation” about the safety of the game and had implemented numerous rule changes and concussion protocols in recent years. “We are seeing measurable results, including a 34 per cent decrease in concussions in NFL games since the 2012 season,” a league spokesperson said in a statement regarding the film.

Among the audience at the TCL Chinese Theatre was the wife of Justin Strzelczyk, a Steelers offensive lineman killed in a car crash, and the wife and daughter of Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau, who fatally shot himself. Early in my reporting career, Waters once threatened to drag me out of the Eagles locker room and beat me senseless over an innocuous question I asked him. Because of Omalu’s findings, other players who have endured a history of head trauma have been found to suffer from the same progressive degenerative brain disease. Smith plays Omalu, a Nigerian-born forensic pathologist in Pittsburgh who knows nothing about football when he performs the autopsy on former Steelers centre Mike Webster.

In September, Sony Pictures Entertainment denied a New York Times report that the studio had altered the movie’s script to avoid antagonising the NFL. As Omalu’s wife, Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s only job seems to be providing support to her onscreen husband via lines like: “You did all this.” Mbatha-Raw, who tore up the screen in last year’s Beyond the Lights, doesn’t play a person so much as a prop to keep Omalu’s spirits afloat.

Smith’s character seeks a meeting with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell (played by Luke Wilson), who calls for a concussion summit where Omalu isn’t allowed in the room. At league offices in New York, grim-faced executives are informed of newspaper stories about CTE that are on the front page, not relegated to the sports or science sections.

Former NFL safety Dave Duerson, who worked for the league, is shown rejecting desperate pleas for help from Andre Waters, a hard-hitting safety who said his mind wasn’t right. He’s even kind to corpses: when slicing up bodies in the autopsy room, Omalu directly addresses the dead out of respect. “Be less of an artist – try to fit in a little more,” his boss advises this lovable outsider. The movie ends with news of Seau’s death followed by statistics of the toll CTE has taken on NFL players and the concussion lawsuit filed by dozens of retired players. “It’s almost laughable,” he said on the red carpet Tuesday night. “Anybody who sees this movie knows this movie is a shot between the eyes of the NFL. The movie—scheduled for wide release on Christmas Day—focuses on Pittsburgh pathologist Bennet Omalu’s discovery of CTE and that in itself is an impressive story. But the movie’s greatest strength is how it uses the tragic stories of Steelers Hall of Famer Mike Webster, Waters, Duerson and others to hold up a mirror to our football-crazed society, then and now. (The Steelers and the city of Pittsburgh will likely hate this movie.) If you have a pulse and a conscience, the movie will cause you to examine this love of football, and at what cost that love comes to the actual human beings who play it.

Its focus is on Omalu’s struggle to tell the truth and the tragic deaths of men who played the billion-dollar sport that is America’s favorite game. “The only criticism we’ve received is from people who haven’t seen the movie,” Landesman said during a post-screening Q&A. “None of us wanted the movie to be confrontational or judgmental. Years after the death of Webster in 2002, it’s become clear in hindsight that the NFL knew more than it let on and opted to, at best, ignore Omalu’s findings. It explains how the brain sits in a fluid, disconnected from the skull, and how the trauma of football rips apart the delicate framework of the human mind. This is football’s Inconvenient Truth—the Al Gore movie that broke down global warming to a simple scale and evoked a better understanding of what was happening. This is the best football movie ever made (and I’ve seen every one), because it does something that I like to do, which is pause and take a look around.

I will go back to loving this sport, to playing fantasy football, to writing about the players, but for now, for right now, Concussion is causing me to look more closely at a sport we all adore.

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