Concussion tries to achieve the depth and stakes of the Biblical story of Esther, without quite enough unchecked power or genocide to support the claim.
The movie is based on real-life Dr. Bennet Omalu’s discovery of the danger of repeated brain trauma sustained by professional football players and his battle to publicize that danger. Omalu (played in the movie by Will Smith) is an immigrant from Nigeria with a stellar resume who works as a pathologist at a coroner’s office in Pittsburgh. Before every autopsy, Omalu asks the corpses to help him tell their story.
“The dead are my patients,” he explains.
That is how he approaches the body of Mike Webster, former center for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Webster was a football icon and Pittsburgh’s “favorite son.” He died of an apparent heart attack, but was also living in a car, super gluing his teeth together, and making himself sleep by self-applying a taser. But instead of putting pressure on Omalu to figure out what happened to Webster, most people seem to want him to revere the body by leaving it alone. This is not how Omalu understands his duty to the dead; fortunately his boss agrees.
This kicks off an investigation that turns into a personal quest to understand what drove Webster mad. It turns out Webster follows a pattern of other former Steelers players who died by suicide or in odd circumstances. Omalu’s quest to understand meets resistance at every turn. Apparently, no one else is brave enough to ask “why?”
The movie tries to create a sense of crushing opposition and a vast conspiracy involving a huge corporation, state government officials, and violent fans that are out to get Omalu, his career, and his new family. Omalu pleads with the powers that be to “tell the truth” and says he only wants the players to know the risks. And in releasing the film, Sony has tried to capitalize on the idea that the movie is “for the players” by reaching out to NFL players, offering them free admission to the movie and special advance screenings in a variety of team cities. Sony wants to underline the importance of the movie as part of a “dialogue” about football safety in this country.
Concussion is based on an interesting GQ article about Omalu, published in 2009 by Jeanne Marie Laskas. Unfortunately, attempting to make a fictionalized movie both a blockbuster and an educational showpiece means the film suffers in both directions. Smith delivers a fantastic performance as Omalu. He is confused and determined with equal authenticity; he is believable as an immigrant “offended” by the response to his attempt to be a “good American.” But as a story, Concussion is a fairly formulaic tale of David versus Goliath, not Esther versus the King—even though Omalu’s wife delivers an intense “for such a time as this” speech.
The movie throws themes at the wall as if hoping one will stick. There is Omalu’s immigrant dream of being the perfect American at war with a country that equates football fandom with patriotism. There is the investigation into the science, where Omalu teaches himself what football involves and pursues the evidence, ultimately becoming a whistleblower who takes the proof to the media. There is a love story between Omalu and Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a woman he meets at church (the movie seems to suggests this element exists solely to serve as context for their meeting early on). There is even a hint that the reason players cannot accept that they are suffering from a physiological condition is that as a disease it is not macho enough.
Omalu approaches football as an outsider. He doesn’t understand why a human being would play this game; he doesn’t understand the passion of the fans or the power of the NFL. But if he doesn’t see the audience as culpable for hiding the truth, the movie certainly does. There are scenes that treat the roaring of the fans at a game as if they were ancient Romans screaming for blood in the Coliseum, the music and slow pan building a sense of horror. In the theater at the screening, I had an uncomfortable sense based on the surrounding murmurs and “tsking” sounds that the idea football is evil has some self-righteous appeal for people who hate the game or resent its fans.
The movie is outright hostile to the NFL’s position. Yes, history shows that the NFL put corporate preservation ahead of accepting science proving players are at risk for developing what Omalu named CTE. But prioritizing the bottom line doesn’t make the game or its owners evil. Neither does doubting new evidence or responding slowly to a shifting reality.
And yet, in Concussion, when a character reminds Omalu that the league is important for reasons beyond power for its own sake—for instance, that it gives back to the community or offers many players a means to escape poverty or violent neighborhoods—that character is merely serving as a shill for corporate interests.
In direct contrast, Omalu claims to have God on his side. “God did not intend for us to play football,” he says when explaining that the human brain has no shock protection against the type of violent collisions occurring on a regular basis in football. The movie repeatedly compares the power of the NFL to the power of God in an apparent attempt to raise the stakes: the NFL “owns” the day that used to belong to God, Omalu’s boss points out; football is described as a “blessing,” “salvation,” and the “beating heart” of its city, in Pittsburgh’s case. Contrast that with Omalu’s quiet, methodical, thrifty life, and it’s obvious that Concussion is also trying to ask big questions about what country Americans want to live in.
When Esther approached the king, she did so knowing that while she was in the right, she had no right to make him listen to her speak. Righteousness is no guarantee that Goliath will listen to David, and Esther knew her first task was to acknowledge the king’s power and humbly ask him to listen to her cause. Omalu approaches the NFL as if the very fact of its power is unjust. When he is asked, “What did you think they were going to say? ‘Thank you’?” His response is an exasperated, “Yes.”
He even turns on Alec Baldwin’s Dr. Julian Bailes, a former team doctor who ensures that Omalu’s research is heard, challenging his motives for helping him by claiming Bailes wants “redemption . . . to cleanse your sins.” In what could have been a turning point, Bailes challenges Omalu’s self-righteousness. By the end of the movie, Omalu approaches his chance to finally speak to the NFL bigwigs, the press, and the players with humility and a genuine plea to hear him as an advocate for the dead and endangered.
But the movie never explores this shift in Omalu’s approach nor the question of whether Omalu’s attitude might have affected his reception, and whether that makes David partially culpable for Goliath’s near victory.
If Omalu has a fatal flaw as a hero, it is that he nearly allows the system to beat him. He becomes disillusioned with his own ideals about America—or perhaps about God, though a possible crisis of faith is never explored. “I thought America was where God sent all his favorite people,” he explains to his wife.
Perhaps it is because American audiences are programmed to expect all sports movies to be uplifting, but Concussion is disappointingly free of a sense that the good guys “won.” It spends two hours developing a heightened sense of drama with close-ups, music, and suspenseful scenes in which a former player suddenly springs into violence. But all of this culminates in a fake-out scene where a pregnant Prema is terrified that someone might be following her car.
A movie in which the hero’s methods fail to produce any change is not a movie very many of us would pay to see. It is time that accomplishes what Omalu could not. According to the logic of Concussion, not even God could convince the NFL to listen.
Concussion is rated PG-13 for thematic material including some disturbing images, and language. There is some language, implied premarital sex and a brief threat of domestic violence. The disturbing images include seeing a mentally unstable men electrocute himself, destroy property, or drive his truck into traffic. Violent collisions between two football players or a football player and the ground are also often played in slow motion for dramatic effect.
Alicia Cohn is a regular contributor to Christianity Today's Her.meneutics and freelance writer based in Denver. She tweets @aliciacohn.