“Concussion” (2015). Cast: Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Albert Brooks, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Morse, Arliss Howard, Mike O’Malley, Eddie Marsan, Paul Reiser, Hill Harper, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Richard T. Jones, Luke Wilson, Matthew Willig, Dan Ziskie, Sara Lindsey. Director: Peter Landesman. Screenplay: Peter Landesman. Magazine Article Story Source: Jeanne Marie Laskas, “Game Brain,” GQ magazine. Web site. Trailer.
Even if it’s not always apparent, we all have a purpose in life. In some cases it will be patently obvious, while in others it’s about as seemingly unlikely as one can imagine. And it’s that latter scenario that provides the basis for the story line in the new fact-based sports drama, “Concussion.”
When forensic neuropathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) performs autopsies in the morgue of the Allegheny County Coroner’s Office, he treats his subjects with a sense of respect and dignity one might not expect in such a cold, clinical setting. The highly educated Nigerian-born immigrant even speaks to his “patients,” asking them to help him discover why they died, a sensitive, humane approach that goes beyond simply cutting open the victims’ bodies and performing calculated scientific analyses to find the answers behind their demise. Some of his colleagues, like co-worker Daniel Sullivan (Mike O’Malley), find such practices quaint, even amusing, but Bennet insists on showing reverence, a quality that’s an outgrowth of his spiritual background as a devout Roman Catholic. And, despite such good-natured ribbing, he nevertheless has the support of his superior, County Coroner Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), who truly values Bennet’s conscientious, meticulous work.
Most of Bennet’s subjects are everyday people, but that changes one day when he’s asked to perform an autopsy on a high-profile victim, former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster (David Morse). The onetime National Football League all-star, who had played on four Super Bowl championship teams and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, died homeless and penniless of an apparent suicide after experiencing a prolonged period of mental instability. Most of Bennet’s colleagues want him to dispense with the procedure as quickly and quietly as possible to preserve the good name of the Steel City hero. But, true to form, the good doctor wants to learn why he died, looking for the underlying cause that prompted Webster to take his own life in the first place.
In performing Webster’s autopsy, Bennet makes some puzzling discoveries. He finds no evidence of brain tumors or other abnormalities typically associated with mental instability. So, in light of that, he wonders, why would a 50-year-old man with an apparently normal brain fall prey to a condition like this, one that would prove to be so troubling that it would lead to suicide? That’s what Bennet wants to find out.
To discover the cause, Bennet proposes conducting a number of specialized tests not typically performed on autopsy victims, a suggestion that meets with much resistance due to cost and potential damage to Webster’s legacy. In the interest of finding the truth, Bennet is at a loss to understand such opposition. When he’s asked if he knows who Webster is and what he meant to the City of Pittsburgh, Bennet confesses that he knows nothing of his subject’s career or about football in general, adding that such considerations don’t matter to him in the pursuit of finding an answer. In fact, he’s so concerned that he even agrees to pay for the tests out of his own pocket, an amount totaling about $20,000.
When Bennet receives the test results, he’s startled. He discovers evidence consistent with the effects of extreme repetitive head trauma, the kind that he postulates would come from repeated blows to the brain brought about by recurring hits from the helmets of opposing football players. Given Webster’s years of playing the game as a child, in high school, in college and in 16 years as a pro, Bennet estimates that Webster suffered over 70,000 such hits, most likely resulting in numerous concussions, many of which may have gone unrecognized. And, considering how many players participated in the game over the years, Bennet suspects that Webster’s case is far from an isolated instance, a suspicion that would soon prove correct.
With the suicides of additional players, like former Pittsburgh Steeler Justin Strzelczyk (Matthew Willig) and Philadelphia Eagle Andre Waters (Richard T. Jones), further evidence of the condition (now known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE) becomes available. Shortly thereafter, Bennet approaches renowned University of Pittsburgh neurology researcher Dr. Steven DeKosky (Eddie Marsan) with his findings, seeking to publish them in a professional medical journal. DeKosky agrees with Bennet’s conclusions, and, before long, word of his work gets into print, an unpopular development that launches an avalanche of retribution against the author from a variety of sources, most notably the NFL.
Given the potentially disastrous economic and public relations consequences of this disclosure, the NFL (led by the likes of League Commissioners Paul Tagliabue (Dan Ziskie) and Roger Goodell (Luke Wilson)) seeks to bury the issue. Bennet is called a quack with no substantiation for his findings, and he and his wife, Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), are targeted for various forms of harassment and intimidation. Even Bennet’s boss, Dr. Wecht, comes under scrutiny; as an elected public official, he’s indicted on trumped-up charges of having used public resources for personal purposes.
However, despite this fabricated smear campaign, a supportive, highly credible ally comes to Bennet’s aid, Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin). As former Pittsburgh Steelers team physician, Julian acknowledges and concurs with Bennet’s research. He also advises Bennet that the NFL had been aware of the concussion issue for years but chose to look the other way, claiming that the issue continually needed more study. And so, with this powerful new collaborator in tow, Bennet forges ahead to take on those who would attempt to silence him, to get them to tell the truth.
At first glance, Bennet’s crusade may seem almost quixotic. Who would have thought that a Nigerian immigrant who knows little, if anything, about a sport that’s totally foreign to him would be willing to take on one of America’s most cherished institutions (and most powerful and influential corporations) over the health and safety practices it employs with regard to its players? Yet that’s precisely what he does. So that naturally raises the question, why?
Ultimately the answer rests with Bennet’s character, the persona he has crafted for himself through the conscious creation process, the means by which we manifest the reality we experience through our thoughts, beliefs and intents. In creating himself, Bennet produces a caring, compassionate soul, one who lives his life in line with his benevolent, spiritual nature for the betterment of himself and those around him, a principle in conscious creation circles known as value fulfillment.
Those who live their value fulfillment possess certain unmistakable qualities that are hallmarks of the conscious creation process. For example, they operate from a tremendous underlying capacity for integrity. In seeking to make his findings known, Bennet never second-guesses his actions or intentions. To him, the results speak for themselves and must be made known, regardless of the implications. The truth, in his eyes, is the truth and must be told, period.
This quality pervades Bennet’s character so thoroughly that it’s even reflected in his family surname, which he shortened to Omalu from Onyemalukwube when he emigrated. In a rare moment of doubt in which he shares with Prema some reservations about his actions, she reminds him that he can’t help but carry through because his efforts mirror what Onyemalukwube means – “he who knows, speak.” With that gentle reminder, Bennet’s resolve is re-energized, and he vows to proceed, no matter what the cost.
This outlook speaks to another conscious creation principle that Bennet freely embraces – his willingness to live heroically. When others outline the potential ramifications of making his findings known, he’s unfazed. This becomes apparent, for example, when Dr. Wecht warns Bennet that he’s about to take on a corporation “that owns a day of the week,” a prospect that he readily shrugs off, because, in his mind, even those stakes should not be allowed to trump the truth. Such innate courage enables him to confront his adversaries and carry on.
Bennet is also adept at making use of the synchronicities that come his way to increase awareness for his crusade. For example, when he needs allies, he skillfully attracts them to his cause as seen by the arrivals of Drs. DeKosky and Bailes in his life. He’s also not hesitant to draw attention to his work by drawing attention to the tragic events that yielded his findings, even personalizing the circumstances to enhance their impact on public opinion and lawmakers. The effect of this is compounded when he later learns about the tragic suicide of Dave Duerson (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a former safety for the Chicago Bears who became a League insider in retirement – and who subsequently took his own life when he was no longer able to cope with the effects of CTE. (In fact, the seemingly once-skeptical Duerson had such a change of heart about the seriousness of this condition that he even went so far as to shoot himself in the chest in order to preserve his brain for further study after his death, quite a reversal for a onetime company man.) Some might arguably call such tactics exploitation, but, then, would anyone have known about this troubling issue had Bennet not made word of it public?
Even seemingly “negative” or obstructing influences can have unexpectedly fortuitous, synchronistic effects. For instance, the many impediments that Bennet runs into may superficially appear to be hindrances or setbacks, but they also have a beneficial impact by keeping him focused and galvanizing him in his beliefs, the means by which he creates the outcomes he seeks. The attempted harassment, stonewalling, obstructionism and character assassination thrust upon Bennet not only fail to achieve their objective but actually serve to empower him in his efforts. He knows how to respond to such intended hampering initiatives by employing beliefs that turn them on their ear and making them work to his advantage. His ability to envision desired results by both effectively creating his own successes and making lemonade out of the foul fruits others throw him ultimately lead him to realize his goals, aspirations that benefit others and epitomize the very meaning of value fulfillment.
“Concussion” may not seem like interesting fare for a feature film, but it succeeds tremendously on virtually every front. Though somewhat formulaic, this exceedingly well-made picture tells an engaging tale about one sincere, committed man’s efforts to exact justice when it’s perilously impaled on the capitalist sacrificial altar. The film capably weaves suspense, heartfelt drama and understated heroics into a package loaded with outstanding performances, particularly those of Smith, Morse and Brooks. There’s a slight tendency for the pacing to drag at times in the second hour, and the romantic interest subplot doesn’t work as well as it could have, but “Concussion” passes muster in almost every other respect.
The film is truly one of the pleasant surprises of this year’s awards season releases. Which is why it’s also surprising that the film hasn’t garnered more attention in this year’s awards competitions. Thus far it has only earned one nomination, a best dramatic actor nod for Smith in the Golden Globe Awards contest. It would be gratifying to see the picture grab more attention in some of this year’s remaining competitions, like the Oscars.
Heroism comes in all forms and in all manner of milieus, and it often takes the form of the David and Goliath scenario on display here. And, no matter how bad things may get, thankfully we nearly always have champions who will step up to address such matters. But, then, that’s to be expected from anyone who is committed to living out his value fulfillment, an effort for which everyone who benefits should be eternally grateful.
Copyright © 2016, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.