“If you don’t speak for the dead, who will?” That’s the question posed to Dr Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist in the film, Concussion, based on a true story. Omalu (Will Smith), a Nigerian immigrant with multiple degrees, is more in interested in the science of death, of why people die rather than how they lived. So when, in 2002, American football giant, Mike Webster, ends up on his autopsy table, Omalu decides to dig deeper. Webster died from cardiac arrest, after living in his truck and sniffing glue. He had turned to his friend and former team doctor, Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), for help, and was given tranquilisers and anti-depressants. “Fix me,” he begs. “In here, and in here,” pointing to his head and chest. But it’s too late.
Webster’s brain appears normal after undergoing the usual scans, but Omalu isn’t convinced. The coroner’s office refuses to pay for more specialised and expensive tests, and at great cost, Omalu pays for them himself. What he discovers is astounding. Severe brain damage, from dozens of concussions. But why has no one, including football team doctors, picked this up?
Another pathologist, as well as a neurologist specialising in brain injuries, confirm Omalu’s findings, which are published in a medical journal. The research shows that professional football players sustain up 70 000 blows to the head during their careers. Despite having concussions, the players are sent back on to the field. Omalu explains that these blows were like a sledgehammer against Webster’s head, “strangling his mind from the inside; like pouring wet concrete down kitchen pipes. As it hardens, it chokes the brain leaving him unrecognizable, even to himself.” The condition is named chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
The National Football League goes on the offensive. Its own panel of experts – many of whom have no experience in the field of pathology or neurology, or who have no medical qualifications at all – calls Omalu’s argument fallacious, despite support from Bailes and the county coroner, Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks). He receives threatening and racist phone calls. “I am the wrong person to have discovered this,” he tells Bailes.
Yet, Omalu persists, and finds evidence of CTE in four other football players, who killed themselves after displaying symptoms of depression and whose behaviour became erratic or violent. And still, Omalu’s research is ridiculed and ignored. Money talks. Players could pull out of the game, while potential professionals may think twice, and Omalu comes under massive strain.
Concussion is a compelling David versus Goliath story about a massive cover up in America’s most popular sport, one which has been compared to the tobacco industry’s decade-long insistence that there is no link between smoking and cancer. However, the cursory sub-plot involving Omalu’s marriage to a Kenyan immigrant, Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and his hopes of becoming an American citizen, detract from the story, through its lack of depth, which breaks up the flow of the film.
What stands out is Will Smith’s powerful performance as Omalu. He’s received a Golden Globe nomination for his efforts, and pundits believe he may well be nominated for an Oscar as well.
Director: Peter Landesman
Cast: Will Smith, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Albert Brooks
Rating: 3½ out of 5
SA release date: 01 January 2015