Investigative dramas are characterised by an imbalance of power between those seeking the truth and those who withhold it. The genre is popular because audiences identify with underdogs and speaking out in the face of danger is what heroism is about. Of the current releases, Concussion (2015) shares this dynamic with Spotlight (2015) and Truth (2015), and all are based on fact. This film is the story of a modest hero who inconveniently discovers why so many pro footballers were dying and the vested interests that tried to silence him.
Footballers are the gladiators of our time, and the NFL is both big business and integral to the “American Dream”. With his trademark humour and understatement, Will Smith is a natural in the role of Nigerian pathologist Bennet Omalu, who discovers a pattern of brain damage amongst top players who were dying at an alarming rate, many by their own hand. The condition can only be discovered via an autopsy and the game’s governing body went into denial when Omalu presented the evidence. In the face of death threats, character assassination, and FBI harassment to have him deported, this lone black immigrant medic would not be silenced in saying that grid-iron was killing its players. Based on his work, the new disease was named chronic traumatic encephalopathy, now known as CTE. A charmingly restrained love story is woven into the film, not to distract or romanticize, but to accentuate Omalu’s vulnerability once he had a family to protect.
Smith’s acting anchors the film and the avoidance of soap-box lectures gives the story objectivity amidst the intense emotional provocation. The film gives hope that in the future when head smashes occur, the ones that make fans roar loudest and watch again in slow-motion on the big-screen, they will remember Will Smith explaining that, unlike animals, the human brain has no shock absorbers and every smash propels the brain against the skull. Like so many excellent investigative dramas, this film has the potential to change social attitudes about the risks taken by sporting gladiators for our entertainment. This well made film needs to be watched by parents, players and sports administrators alike.
Director: Peter Landesman
Stars: Will Smith, Alec Baldwin