Hollywood loves making sequels but the recent announcement of nominees for this year’s Oscar awards is one sequel that many both in the industry and around the world are wishing was never made. For the second year in a row, all the key Oscar nominees are Caucasian. Overlooked this year were Spike Lee (for CHI-RAQ), Michael B. Jordan (for CREED), Idris Elba (for BEASTS OF NO NATION) and Will Smith (for CONCUSSION). The biggest gaffe/snub seemed to be for the film STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON, which is set in a predominantly African-American district of Los Angeles. Its nomination went to the film’s screenwriters – two white guys.
Is the lack of diversity in the Academy’s membership reflected in the artists who were nominated this year? I believe it is. Will Smith thinks so too, and he has said he will boycott this year’s awards ceremony because of it. But skin colour aside, did Smith deserve a nomination?
Written and directed by Peter Landesman, and based on an article (“Game Brain”) by Jean Marie Laskas that was published in 2009 by GQ magazine, CONCUSSION tells the true story (more or less) of Nigerian-born forensic neuropathologist Bennet Omalu, who first identified the disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in retired NFL football players.
It’s well known now that many professional boxers experience dementia and depression following their retirement. Called Dementia pugilistica, or “Punch-drunk syndrome,” the numerous hits to the head that these men take over the course of their careers plays havoc with their brains. Perhaps the most famous sufferer is Muhammad Ali, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome in 1984.
What wasn’t well known until recently is that many retired professional football players suffer from a very similar disease – CTE. In 2002, Dr. Omalu performed an autopsy on Hall of Fame former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster. “Iron Mike” was just 50 years old when he died of a heart attack. A four-time Super Bowl winner, Webster had been reduced to living in his car. When the money to support his addiction to pain medication would run out, he would knock himself out with a taser.
Omalu sees himself as an advocate for the dead, a corpse whisperer, if you will. They reveal why they died to him. (The “how” is obvious; the “why” less so.) Examining Webster’s brain, he found large accumulations of tau proteins – a gunk that had previously been identified in the brains of “punch-drunk” boxers. He postulated that if repeated head bashing could damage a boxer’s brain, it could permanently injure a football player’s brain too. Omalu went on to publish his findings in a respected medical journal but, not surprisingly, the NFL brass denied any culpability and even went so far as to try to discredit Omalu (who, by the way, has at least eight degrees and certifications), calling his science “speculative”. Over the next decade, as more retired NFL players died far too young and often by their own hand, Omalu examined their brains and found the same protein accumulations. By 2009, the NFL couldn’t fight the science anymore. The evidence was piling up. In 2013, the league agreed to pay $765 million to settle the lawsuit brought by 4,500 former players alleging that the NFL concealed the dangers of repetitive head trauma.
That works out to just $170,000 per player, on average – an incredibly trifling sum considering the lifetime of chronic pain these men must endure and coming from a corporation that made billions off of them.
Smith does a very capable job playing the noble doctor but his performance certainly isn’t Oscar-worthy and neither is the film. One has to wonder how much got left unsaid or on the cutting room floor in fear that the NFL would sue. Certainly, the league management and its commissioner, Roger Goodell, do come across as the story’s villains but the film does have a watered-down quality to it. CONCUSSION is just not as hard hitting (pun intended) as it should have been. There is much more to this story that we’re not being told and we know it.
On the plus side, Albert Brooks – complete with an excellent bald head prosthetic – does a great job as Omalu’s boss in the coroner’s office, Dr. Cyril Wecht, but there’s a lot more to his story, too, that isn’t covered in the film. The real Wecht, apparently, was involved in a number of high profile autopsies over the years, which makes it completely sensible for him to be supportive of Omalu’s efforts in taking on a monolith like the NFL. This point, unfortunately, did not come out in the film. For all we know, Wecht’s motivation was that he was a nice guy who saw a younger version of himself in Omalu. The film’s other standout was David Morse, who played Mike Webster. I’ve been a fan of Morse since his days on TV’s ST. ELSEWHERE. He played the tragic hero perfectly then and he does so again here.
The film closes with a very sobering statistic – the percentage of NFL players that the actuaries think will develop CTE. Knowing this statistic, many parents of kids who are playing high school football are now asking themselves if it’s worth the risk. As fearless off the field as the NFL is on, this is something that must scare them to no end. Unless big changes are made to protect players’ health and welfare, America’s Game may soon find itself as a relic of the past.
Listen to the review online on Radio 4. (Click on the link. Select Part 2 and slide the time bar over to 33:50.)
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