Rarely does a Hollywood film featuring A-list players in a fact-driven “David vs. Goliath” storyline achieve true social and media currency. The recent Will Smith vehicle Concussion is this generation’s exception. More than mere entertainment, more than a cautionary tale, the film is a clarion call to action.
A long list of whistleblower films have been box office hits and achieved critical acclaim. But Hollywood tends to look backward at actual events in films like Erin Brockovich, Silkwood, The Informant, All the President’s Men, and this year’s narco-cop thriller, The Insider. As riveting and socially relevant as those films may be, none of them exposes issues we face in our everyday lives today, tomorrow, and in all the days to come.
For that reason alone, Concussion, the true story of forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu and his head-on collision with the National Football league over the issue of the effects of recurrent brain trauma suffered on the gridiron. When Omalu discovers the consequences of traumatic brain injury in contact sports, nobody wants to hear about it. He knocks on all the right doors to urge someone to do something, but nobody seems to care.
Will Smith’s portrayal of Nigerian-born Omalu reminds us of the actor’s versatility and impeccable craft. Within moments of hearing his accent, we forget that he has one; it’s simply the voice of Omalu coming through him.
Writer-director Peter Landesman shows us the personal sacrifice and risk one assumes when confronting America’s powerful economic interests. Omalu’s autopsy of the NFL player Mike Webster sets the doctor on a collision course with The National Football League. It’s a formidable opponent, memorably described in the film by Albert Brooks (playing Omalu’s sardonic boss at the pathology lab) as an institution that “owns a day of the week.”
Omalu soon discovers a shocking reality: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell (played by a somewhat miscast Luke Wilson) cares only about the commercial interests of the NFL and has little regard for the safety and health of its players. Even with the begrudging support of a former team doctor, sympathetically played by Alec Baldwin, Omalu finds himself confronting unseen forces determined to destroy his reputation, his family, and the truth of his medical findings.
Concussion alerts us to the very real effects of violent contact sports—from football and soccer to lacrosse and boxing—upon the all-too-fragile brain health of current and future athletes of every age. The film also reminds us of the power of the individual human spirit. In conveying that spirit, Will Smith passionately delivers the movie’s call to action for all of us working to solve the problem of traumatic brain injury in sports: “Tell the truth. The truth.”