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December 25, 2015

I’ve never been a big football fan. In theory I don’t have much of a problem with the sport itself, though as time goes by I’ve found more and more things that unsettle me about the NFL. I’m the guy who really would show up at the Super Bowl party to watch the commercials, and lately I haven’t even bothered with them. So if anyone is going to be on the side of a doctor trying to prove that, as the game is currently played, it leads directly to long-term brain trauma, I’m that person.

So on the politics and policies, count me among Dr. Bennet Omalu’s biggest fans. But when the movie about his struggles, Concussion, lands with all the narrative elegance of a sledgehammer, it’s all I can do to get through it. And if this story doesn’t work for me, who does it work for?

The inside-baseball — well, I guess inside-football here — story is that the NFL flexed its muscle to improve the way it comes off in the movie. It it did, I have a hard time seeing their fingerprints. The cynic in me might suggest that they made sure the results would be this awkward and plodding so that nobody would bother watching, but that’s too subtle a move to derail Will Smith’s latest swing at an Oscar. Besides, writer/director Peter Landesman’s other feature, Parkland, was every bit as overblown as Concussion is.

As best I can tell, what the NFL managed was a lot of inserted praise for the grace and glory of the game, and lots of dialogue about how wonderful an institution football is. On the other hand, the film paints about as damning a portrait of the NFL as Spotlight does of the Archdiocese of Boston. We even get the Nigerian-British actor Adewale Akinnuoye Agbaje playing the role of actual former pro and — to hear the film tell it — NFL spokesman Dave Duerson telling the thoroughly American Smith playing the Nigerian Omalu to “go back to Africa”. Because we can totally accuse the NFL of cartoonish levels of racism as long as we put the words in the mouth of the blackest actor we can get our hands on, right?

Up against the mustache-twirling NFL we have Omalu, backed by his supervisor at the Pittsburgh Coroner’s Office (Albert Brooks) and an NFL doctor-turned-whistleblower (Alec Baldwin). But these crusading men aren’t going it totally alone; Omalu has the all-but-mute admiration of his wife, Prema Mutiso (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Yes, one of the most promising young black actresses of her generation is reduced to playing the sounding board for Smith’s Oscar-angling monologues, who alternately admires and bears children for her Great Man husband. Oh yeah, and while Prema has evidently kept her name in real life, we see it printed in the movie as “Prema Omalu”.

This much is clear: repeated blows to the head — like those sustained while playing football even with modern helmets — cause long-term degenerative structural changes to brain tissue. This is true both for injuries that produce concussions and for sub-concussive blows that do not cause any visible symptoms at the time. This has resulted in an epidemic of mental deterioration in — among other groups — former pro football players, which has often gone unrecognized and misdiagnosed as early-onset Alzheimer’s. The neuropathological work of Dr. Bennet Omalu was instrumental in bringing these facts to the attention of the medical establishment in the particular case of football players, and the NFL has tried to cover up the science.

But what would be wrong with, for once, letting the science take the lead in a science story instead of writing a Great Man of Science hagiography? And why do we need long monologues about how much this Great Man loves America? Or asides from his priest about how he’s the Greatest Man in the parish? If we really believed in the meritocracy of science, why does it matter who Bennet Omalu was at all, beyond the fact that he was right?

A film about a scientific breakthrough that focused on the science itself rather than on the myth of the Great Man may not provide as many opportunities for scene-chewing during awards season, but it would certainly be more enjoyable than getting bashed over the head over and over and over again like Concussion does to its audience.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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