Against all common sense the world was flat during time periods when ancient cultures and religions demanded it be so. Smoking tobacco carried no health risks according to manufactures despite all evidence to the contrary.
And now the National Football League insists that a game in which a player might sustain 70,000 blows to the head during a pro career could not possibly lead to any brain damage.
If dementia pugilistic or “punch-drunk syndrome” can exist in boxing, an accepted scientific theory, then it was no leap in logic to conclude that getting hit in the head in football can lead to similar dementia. But the NFL continues to insist there isn’t enough clinical data.
The movie “Concussion” tells the story of the forensic neuropathologist and American immigrant, Dr. Bennet Omalu, who proved scientifically what common sense should have dictated —that playing football can result in brain trauma.
This is the story not only of Dr. Omalu’s discovery of a nightmarish, degenerative brain disease now known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, but the NFL’s furious attempt to not only discredit his theory but the man as a scientist.
Indeed the NFL actually demanded that this no-name Nigerian witch doctor retract his initial article on the disease. (Those pejoratives were implied not explicitly stated.)
It’s a powerful story made all the more so by fine performances from Will Smith, who reminds you what a fine actor he can be if given good material, as well as Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Albert Brooks.
It is also, however, a studio film produced by top executives and producers such as Ridley Scott, which brings compromises to the true-life tale as it strives to achieve the broadest possible audience.
Conflicts must be invented or enhanced and the story pitched in traditional movie genres most likely to connect to viewers who have been inured to these acceptable methods of studio storytelling.
Thus the Pittsburgh Steeler players, whose tragic and early deaths led to Dr. Omalu’s discovery of CTE, are seen meeting, destitute, moody and mentally impaired, on scruffy lots like something out of a drug movie while the NFL’s persecution of the scientist plays like a thriller with shadowy ops, midnight phone calls and ominous music.
This is no different than Ben Affleck tacking on phony melodrama at the end of his true story “Argo” — he won an Oscar for doing so — or Steven Spielberg showing his true-life hero in “Bridge of Spies” harassed and threatened by fellow Americans in ways he never was.
It’s a shame studios seldom trust true stories, instead preferring to filter them through the Hollywood playbook of genre conventions, hackneyed characters and unnecessary gloss. In the last month alone, such films as “The 33” and “The Revenant” have suffered, in my opinion of course, from such “artistic license.”
The challenge facing director-screenwriter (and former journalist) Peter Landesman, working from a 2009 GQ magazine article by Jeanne Marie Laskas, is that the movie’s deadly mystery gets solved about half way through.
By the time Will Smith’s headstrong but naive Bennett coins the term CTE, several fascinating storylines have emerged. One has the Nigerian doctor in a romance with Kenyan nurse and fellow immigrant Prema Mutiso (Mbatha-Raw), a subplot with many charming moments and warm intimacy well played by the two actors.
Another has Bennett in touchy professional relationships in his work at the Allegheny County Coroner’s Office in Pittsburgh as he struggles to figure out what killed star Steelers center Mike Webster (David Morse).
One co-worker (Mike O’Malley) fights him bitterly for no apparent reason other than to create conflict where none exists. However, Brooks’ pathologist Dr. Cyrill Wecht, Bennett’s boss, is a wonderfully nuanced, often witty portrait of a man who gives Bennett his full backing even though he knows it’s going to be a political headache for himself.
Equally as intriguing is Bennett’s relationship with Baldwin’s Dr. Julian Bailes, a respectable neurosurgeon and former Steelers team physician, who eventually sides with Bennett’s conclusions when he grows convinced of the science behind Bennett’s claims.
But the main focus of interest is Bennett himself. With Smith seemingly inhabiting the body and English speech patterns of a much different man, the pathologist emerges as a fascinating character, a man who insists, “The dead are my patients.”
He always asks cadavers to help him understand their demise; he coaxes information from the dead by using evidence they provide and, yes, common sense.
He believes he speaks for the dead. He asked their bodies, “Tell me what happened to you,” and then retells their stories.
But the mystery is indeed solved midway through, even as more Steelers and other ex-NFL players turn up dead at early ages from suicide or other means. So the film shifts its focus to the battle between a doctor, who honestly thought the NFL would embrace his research and work with him toward a common good, to a pitched battle between him and the $8 billion business that is NFL football.
The movie doesn’t exactly go dead at this point but the thriller clichés drag the story down. At one point Prema believes she’s being followed by a mysterious car. And the film later implies NFL ops caused her miscarriage.
Too bad “Concussion” didn’t continue in real mystery mode. Rather than focus on film noir tropes, what if the focus shifted to a possible cure that Dr. Omalu has been pursuing, say a pill popped before a game that prevents the buildup of an abnormal protein called “tau?” Or his research into other contributing factors to CTE such as steroid use?
Not that the NFL isn’t a real villain here. Hiding these now known facts from its players and fans has done an incalculable disservice to both.
Meanwhile the filmmakers’s zeal in embellishing a story that is shocking enough on its merits may have done another disservice to audiences.
Opens: December 25, 2015 (Columbia Pictures)
Production companies: Village Roadshow, The Cantillon Co., LStar Capital, Scott Free Prods., Shuman Co.
Cast: Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Albert Brooks, David Morse, Arliss Howard, Luke Wilson, Eddie Marsan, Paul Reiser
Director-screenwriter: Peter Landesman
Based on the article by: Jeanne Marie Laskas
Producers: Ridley Scott, Giannina Scott, David Wolthoff, Larry Shuman, Elizabeth Cantillon
Executive producers: Michael Schaefer, David Crockett, Ben Waisbren, Bruce Berman, Greg Basser
Director of photography: Salvatore Totino
Production designer: David Crank
Music: James Newton Howard
Costume designer: Dayna Pink
Editor: William Goldenberg
PG-13 rating, 123 minutes