Football is dangerous. There is just no way to think that it isn’t, no matter how many pads someone wears. It flies in the face of logic to think that someone can be hit repeatedly for decades on end and not suffer some sort of consequences.
Dr. Bennet Omalu’s discovery then that football players can suffer from something called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) shouldn’t really be all that surprising. And yet it was surprising when he published his first paper on it in 2005 and it still is today, when a movie about Omalu, “Concussion,” is set to hit theaters.
Will Smith stars as the doctor in this tale directed by Peter Landesman, who also wrote the screenplay. It is a movie far less interesting for what takes place on screen than for what we, as a nation, are going to do knowing that the movie—and the problem—exists.
Okay, so I say the problem exists and Omalu says that the science says the problem exists (I do have a science background but unquestionably not one that is strong enough for me to pull apart Omalu’s articles to establish their veracity). The NFL, however, seems to argue that at worst, they’re doing whatever they can to minimize head injuries. Which isn’t the same thing as CTE not being a problem, but isn’t saying that it is either.
At one point in “Concussion,” the movie actually equates the NFL to the tobacco companies, hiding the truth from an unsuspecting public when they know that they’re product causes harm. More circle the wagons than find the truth kind of stuff. These are the strongest moments in “Concussion,” the moments when the audience is made to hope and pray that the sport millions of Americans love to watch was unaware of the issue and that, once they’re made aware, they will step up and do everything to fix it, but there simply aren’t enough of these moments in the film.
In one telling scene, Omalu is not allowed inside the NFL’s “concussion summit.” He is instead forced to wait outside the conference room doors and contemplate what might be going on behind them. As the summit ends, Omalu gets a quick peek inside but nothing more. That is, essentially, “Concussion” – a quick peek inside but mostly cogitating all alone, just outside where the conversation is happening.
The real question of “Concussion” is one the film can’t answer. It is, as said above, how will we, as a nation, respond to the movie. I watched it on Monday night, as the Giants were getting ready for a do-or-die game in Miami. When I left the screening, the game was on the radio and I was faced with the choice that both the movie and the NFL would ask us to make (each taking the opposite position) – believing what the movie would have us believe about the prevalence and cause of CTE in NFL players, will I still follow the sport? Would I tune into the radio as I drove home and see if the Giants could keep their meager playoff hopes alive?
There are some incredibly powerful things going on in the movie, and Will Smith gives a fantastic performance. The love story he plays opposite Gugu Mbatha-Raw is weak and foolish and better left out of the movie (although, if it’s a true story I don’t know how you make that happen), but Smith is fantastic as this man, Omalu, who is just trying to live what he, as an immigrant, sees as the American dream only to be told he’s destroying one of the institutions that Americans have come to hold most dear.
All of those things though are drowned out by this larger question, this question that the film, even if it wanted to answer, couldn’t – if Omalu is right, even if there is the potential that he is right, what are going to do about it? What is the moral imperative of us, the audience of both the film and the sport?
It isn’t the fault of “Concussion” that it can’t really provide an answer there, but it does hurt the film. The movie acknowledges some of the beauty of the sport and also some of the brutality. It features beautiful catches and startlingly horrific tackles, but it doesn’t say how you go about having the former without the latter. It leaves that for us to work out, for us to demand of the NFL.
photo credit: Sony Pictures