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"CONCUSSION"
(2015) (Will Smith, Gugu Mbatha-Raw) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A medical examiner must contend with the fallout of discovering a disease that stems from concussions in former pro football players.
PLOT:
It's 2002 and Dr. Bennet Omalu (WILL SMITH) is a Nigerian forensic pathologist working in Pittsburg. While he gets along just fine with his big boss, Allegheny County coroner Dr. Cyril Wecht (ALBERT BROOKS), his immediate supervisor, Danny Sullivan (MIKE O'MALLEY), can't stand how Bennet works.

And that's namely in treating the dead with respect -- including talking to them -- and doing his best to figure out how they died. Danny's disdain for Bennet comes to a head when the body of former Pittsburg Steelers center Mike Webster (DAVID MORSE) shows up on his table. Danny simply wants the NFL star buried as quickly as possible, but Bennet is curious about what caused this man's unstable mental condition and ultimate death at a relatively young age.

At the same time, and upon his priest's request, Bennet takes in Prema Mutiso (GUGU MBATHA-RAW), an immigrant who was a nurse back in her home country, and is now trying to start anew in America. The workaholic pathologist is friendly and supportive, but doesn't really pay attention to her until the two eventually fall in love.

As that happens, Bennet gets an ally in former Pittsburg Steelers head doctor, Dr. Julian Bailes (ALEC BALDWIN), who now has a private practice and is concerned that so many of his former players and friends, including Mike and now offensive linemen Justin Strzelczyk (MATTHEW WILLIG), have ended up dead. And he's particularly intrigued by Bennet's findings of a new disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), that seems to be affecting former NFL players who had concussions.

Not surprisingly, the NFL isn't happy when his findings are published, and they're dismissed by the likes of Dr. Elliot Pellman (PAUL REISER), the chairman of the NFL's Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee; Dave Duerson (ADEWALE AKINNUOYE-AGBAJE) a former Pro Bowl player turned NFL executive; and Dr. Joseph Maroon (ARLISS HOWARD), the Chief Neurosurgeon of the NFL who tries to warn Bennet of the repercussions he's going to face if he continues with his investigation. Undeterred by that and threatening calls, Bennet continues with his work, determined to alert players and the world about this dangerous malady.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
I always wanted to be a football player while young. Unfortunately, my genes got in the way. Not only was I horribly nearsighted -- thus requiring huge rubber framed glasses -- but I was also small for my age. I quickly learned, during a hitting drill where the entire team lines up and you're supposed to hold your ground as they rush at you, that I didn't have the size to play high school football behind the ninth-grade team where my position was that of benchwarmer.

And playing football obviously didn't happen in college, which is a good thing considering the even greater size of those players as compared to yours truly at the time. Granted, a guy who roomed a few doors down from me for a few years -- Mark Kelso -- wasn't much bigger than me yet ended up playing for the Buffalo Bills during their Super Bowl years. You might remember him. He was the defensive back who wore the extra half helmet on top of the standard one everyone else wore. He did so due to concussions he suffered and a desire not to have any more. In fact, he now works for a company that's trying to develop a new helmet, so I'm sure he's interested in the new movie about traumatic head injuries in the NFL, "Concussion."

It's the story of Bennet Omalu, first profiled in the 2013 PBS/Frontline documentary "League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis" about his discovery of the disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in some former players of that professional sport. It was a fascinating if disturbing look not only at that, but also the attempts by the NFL to discredit his findings and thus protect their multi-billion dollar industry. That man is portrayed by Will Smith in an Oscar-caliber performance in what turns out to be an engaging and engrossing film that's one of the better offerings of 2015.

As written and directed by Peter Landesman, the pic begins with recreated footage showing Pittsburg Steelers center Mike Webster (David Morse) at his Hall of Fame presentation, followed by a view of Bennet showing his stuff as a forensic specialist in a court of law. In his everyday job, he works for the Allegheny County coroner's office. And when that former football star ends up on his table, the tale really begins as the forensic specialist tries to figure out the underlying cause of what drove this man to madness and then ultimately resulted in his demise.

That eventually leads to interactions with both allies -- beyond Albert Brooks playing his big boss, Alec Baldwin enters the picture playing the Steelers' former team doctor who's grown tired of seeing former friends and players dying too young -- and foes, the latter mainly in the form of those working for or aligned with the NFL, along with a few harassment calls and such.

A subplot features Gugu Mbatha-Raw as an immigrant from Nairobi who ends up moving in with Omalu (as requested by their shared priest) and eventually becomes his girlfriend. While that woman was in the real man's life, this is present from a storytelling standpoint to humanize the man, give him someone outside the office to talk to, and to show what he could potentially lose if the pushback goes too far and he steps out of bounds into the danger zone.

Like many a film of this ilk (think "Erin Brockovich"), the story follows the usual formula of an unlikely hero who finds something bad, tries to reveal it, and draws heat from the powers that be who try to discredit and then shut him down. Despite the obstacles and known and unknown perils of doing so, he then doubles down and perseveres, knowing he must push forward and let the world know what's happening. Despite that familiar trajectory, that scenario works well here, especially due to Smith's believable performance (that includes using the real man's distinctive accent). It's good and believable enough that you soon forget you're watching a movie star.

Supporting performances are solid across the board (it's always fun watching Brooks in any part), and the tech credits are solid (the fact that they somehow got permission to use all of the real NFL footage that shows up on the screen only adds to the film's overall credibility). I have no idea how the NFL or my former college classmate will view this, but as a former aspiring player, it certainly makes me happy I never got that far in the sport. An important film that's certainly worth seeing, both for its message and artistry, "Concussion" is hard-hitting, but drives down the field and scores with ease. It rates as a 7 out of 10.




Reviewed December 3, 2015 / Posted December 25, 2015


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