Butting Heads

Will Smith tackles the NFL 

1286100 - Concussion

Concussion

Starring Will Smith, Alec Baldwin & Albert Brooks

Directed by Peter Landesman

PG-13

Will Smith has fought zombies, space aliens and killer robots. Now he’s squaring off against an even bigger, completely human foe—and certainly a much more popular one.

In Concussion, he plays Dr. Bennett Omalu, who discovers the link between football and CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy—potentially fatal brain damage from repeated concussions.

The true story (originally told in a 2009 article in GQ magazine) begins as we meet Nigerian-born Omalu in 2002, while he’s working in Pittsburgh as the county coroner’s forensic pathologist. The untimely death, and bizarre final days, of a former Pittsburgh Steeler football Hall of Famer, Mike Webster (David Morse), troubles him: Webster’s autopsy reveals severe brain trauma that caused him to go crazy, freak out and eventually expire of a heart attack. When Omalu learns of other NFL players dying in similar fashion, he investigates further and comes to a conclusion that almost no one wants to hear—especially not the National Football League.

Playing football can kill you.

Unlike some other creatures, such as the woodpecker or the bighorn sheep, Omalu points out, humans have no natural shock absorber in our skulls to cushion the blow when one of our noggins impact with something hard—like another noggin. Nature, or providence, simply did not equip us that way. Therefore, Omalu reasons, “God did not intend for us to play football.”

Smith, a bona fide movie star, is outstanding in a non-flashy role that doesn’t involve car chases, spaceships, shootouts or CGI special effects—just straight-up, strong, dig-in acting and a very plausible, start-to-finish nail-down of Dr. O’s West African accent and mannerisms. He makes you feel Omalu’s passionate sense of commitment—and his dream to be accepted as “American”—as the NFL tries to quash his research and discredit him.

Albert Brooks is Cyril Wecht, the county coroner who helps Omalu while warning him of squaring off against with the NFL. “You’re going to war with a corporation that owns a day of the week,” he tells him. Alec Baldwin plays Dr. Julian Bailes, the former Steelers team doctor who assists Omalu in getting his message to football players, managers, agents and the commissioner. “You’ve turned on the lights and given their biggest boogeyman a name,” Bailes says.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Will Smith star in Columbia Pictures' "Concussion."

Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Will Smith

British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Prema, the Nigerian student who becomes Omalu’s wife, reminding him that his family name means “He who knows, speaks.”

But the movie belongs to Smith, who tackles what might be his one of his trickiest, juiciest roles—a crusading underdog with a potentially life-saving message that falls on mostly deaf ears. “Tell the truth—tell the truth!” a frustrated Omalu jabs at a NFL team neurosurgeon who refuses to admit there’s any connection between football and brain injury.

As millions of football fans tune into the big game this weekend, it’s a truth that will likely be drowned out by the symphony of cheers all across America.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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