Film Review: Will Smith in ‘Concussion’

11 Nov 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Concussion’: AFI Fest Review.

LOS ANGELES (AP) – “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.

Will Smith and Sony came out hard against the National Football League at the world premiere of Concussion, painting a damning picture of a sport too big to admit it’s been killing its own players. “My son played football for four years, so for me it was really conflicting,” star Will Smith told a sold-out audience after Concussion’s AFI Fest debut, where real-life subject Dr.Previously rumored as neutered by the very group it’s critiquing, fear not: “Concussion” actually retains the startling truths about the effects of brain trauma in the NFL. But in recent years, as projects take longer and longer to come to fruition and as studios grow more cautious, it’s rare to find a truly timely, topical drama. If your first question is, “What startling truths?” then permit the film — dutifully written and directed by Peter Landesman and featuring stellar work by Will Smith — to elaborate. 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.

But ultimately it’s the struggle to couch those facts in a satisfying arc that hobbles the piece; it’s the difference between a well-acted vehicle for awareness, rather than the alert and pointed scientific drama toward which it aims. Omalu remained diplomatic during their AFI Fest Q&A, the film speaks for itself: Organized football is akin to organized religion in America, it argues, and the NFL is a deeply and dangerously entrenched cultural institution more concerned with protecting itself than protecting its athletes.

The one to lead us through these breakthroughs is Bennet Omalu (played by Smith), a Nigerian-born forensic pathologist in Pittsburgh who, in 2002, first noticed abnormalities in the brains of professional football players. Among the audience at the TCL Chinese Theatre was the wife of Justin Strzelczyk, the Steelers offensive lineman killed in a car crash, and the wife and daughter of Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau, who shot himself to death. The NFL fought to bury the evidence of these medical perils, and the league can’t be happy about a high-profile movie bringing the issues into the limelight. Deeply religious, wedded to the American Dream, and devoted to the “science of death,” he immerses himself in his work, speaking to his cadavers for answers and listening to Teddy Pendergrass tunes while doing so. Credit should go to producer Ridley Scott and to the executives who backed the movie, keeping alive a tradition of muckraking that once did Hollywood proud.

When former Steelers center Mike Webster (a solid as usual David Morse) dies of a cardiac arrest, found dead in the truck where he lived in mental and physical pain, the body goes to Omalu and begs the question: how does a local legend waste away into homelessness and self-harm, and eventually death? One scene that didn’t make it into the film reportedly captured a conversation between NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell (Luke Wilson) and NFL doctor Elliot Pellman discussing the gunshot suicide of high profile NFLer Dave Duerson. After Webster, the cases of Steelers players rack up: Terry Long, a guard who battled depression and memory loss before drinking antifreeze; Andre Waters, a safety with a similar history who took his own life. Instead, Goodell only appears in reenacted scenes of publicly documented appearances and speeches—including his 2009 testimony before Congress in which he defended the NFL’s policies. Not that Concussion needs a Goodell gotcha moment to mount an incriminating indictment of the NFL’s failure to address an increasingly unavoidable spate of mental health issues among its players.

As the devout and saintly Omalu declares to colleagues after discovering the correlation between football and brain damage: “God did not intend for us to play football.” He makes the landmark discovery while performing a routine autopsy on Pittsburgh Steelers star Mike Webster (David Morse, in a devastating turn), a once-great center found dead after being reduced to a shell of his former self, living out of his pick-up truck. “Why does an apparently healthy favorite son of this city become self-mutilating and homeless at 50?” Omalu wonders. The answer plays out like an episode of CSI: Pittsburgh as the Nigerian-born pathologist spends his own savings to run tests on the late Webster’s brain, the only organ that offers any clue to why the celebrated athlete seemingly went crazy.

The film never goes full gumshoe, but there is the Unknown Car following Omalu’s pregnant wife Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) home, and later on, pensive meetings behind glass doors with faceless businessmen. Thankfully, the chords of humanism come in with Omalu, as he grapples with having to assert his abilities while questioning the worth of fighting such a prolonged, and seemingly one-sided battle. 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. Archival NFL footage of brutal tackles sprinkled throughout Concussion hammers home the point; scenes of young children smashing helmets in pee-wee football gives that intention a wider and more alarming scope. He also showed in his underrated film, Parkland, a drama about the Kennedy assassination, that he has a real gift in drawing strong performances from a large cast.

His magnetism reflects in his embodiment of Omalu, as does his lilting Nigerian accent, which stands out to the ear for the first five minutes, then beds down and rarely wavers. The league knew about the dangers of on-field concussions, it argues, but ignored and suppressed the warnings even as an epidemic of mental illness and suicide shocked the sport with increasingly alarming regularity.

The ensemble gel together with finesse, as Morse and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje do great work as troubled NFL players, and Albert Brooks and Baldwin supply the few lighthearted moments of the film. And yet the deaths pile up—like those of Steelers lineman Justin Strzelcyzk, who died in a head-on collision after leading the police on a high speed car chase, and fellow Steelers alum Terry Long, who doctors discovered was suffering from brain damage when he committed suicide by drinking antifreeze. According to Landesman, Omalu’s work made him “a mortal threat, public enemy No. 1, to one of the most lucrative industrial spectacles on the planet.” In the film it also brings death threats and FBI intimidators to his door—and, in one ambiguously suggestive scene, indirectly contributes to the miscarriage of his first child. So keen is Landesman to accelerate past her scenes, there’s a boggling moment where she is waiting at home — dressed and made up to go dancing — in preparation for Omalu to enter and tell her they’re going dancing. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, the star of Belle and Beyond the Lights, gives a charming performance in what might have been a stock role as the hero’s supportive wife.

Various actors like Hill Harper and Arliss Howard follow suit as part of the NFL threat, showing up as vague intimidation before vanishing completely. 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. “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. A lack of pace and illuminating insight are what keep “Concussion” from lasting resonance, its flaws threatening to dull the issue for drama in a way that the NFL could only appreciate.

Julian Bailes, who’s driven to help Omalu by his deep regret over his own part in the NFL’s concussion epidemic.) Brooks also made reference to the New York Times story about Concussion’s supposedly softened script. Now that he’d seen the film, “that wasn’t a cave in,” he exclaimed. “I think that was just a lot of malarkey.” Concussion’s premiere was also attended by several ex-NFL players and, most movingly, the families and widows of players lost to CTE. David Morse is unrecognizable in his few scenes as Webster, but he works from the inside out and in just a few moments makes us understand the ravages that the game has wrought on this once mighty warrior. Like docs such as “Head Games” or “The Crash Reel,” Landesman splices in montages of actual head-on collisions to visualize what’s at stake.

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