A movie review of "Concussion," based on the book, "Game Brain," by Jeanne Marie Laskas:
'I have never wanted anything as much as I wanted to be accepted as an American."
That's Dr. Benet Omalu (Will Smith) in the new film, Concussion, on his real-life journey, which took him from being an unknown forensic pathologist from Nigeria to becoming the reviled challenger of a pillar of American culture, the National Football League.
The issue: pre-mature deaths and suicides of NFL players attributed to the repetitive head-crashing players suffer over the course of their football careers, resulting in a brain pathology called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).
Dr. Omalu didn't know anything about football but he knew the human body. He would lean over, cradle lifeless hands with his own and ask loved ones for help in understanding how they died. In September 2002, in a morgue in Pittsburgh, the corpse was that of Mike Webster, a celebrated former Pittsburgh Steeler player found dead in the car where he had been living. Webster's once intimidating body had morphed into that of a desperate man who Tasered himself and sniffed glue to cope with headache pain, hallucinations and haunting insomnia.
Standard autopsy tests provided no rationale for a full workup of the brain, but Omalu was determined to understand what made this football hero lose his sanity and his life. He faced pressure to "leave well enough alone" from colleagues who didn't want to see Webster's image tarnished.
But Omalu's boss and mentor, Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), was a risk-taker and allowed Omalu to proceed, though on his own dime. Once the evidence was in hand, he came to support Omalu, preferring truth over convenience.
Concussion illustrates how Sunday warriors were severely damaged and how that was denied, but it's not a screed against football.
The film highlights the electrifying connection that comes with cheering for a common goal while wearing our team's colors, the camaraderie we find even with strangers at games. For many young men, football is a way out of a tough life — and for a very few, a path to riches.
In 2011, a catalyst in having the NFL acknowledge Omalu's work came from the glorious career and tragic death of the Chicago Bears' Dave Duerson. In his suicide note, he asked that his brain be donated for research.
Dr. Omalu's journey is more than science and truth-seeking. He finds love and then a formidable partnership with Prema Mutiso (actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw).
Concussion is not an easy movie to watch. Actual footage of violent hits in the NFL are disturbing, especially the distasteful news clips included that glorify them.
Will Smith's portrayal of Dr. Benet Omalu is Oscar-worthy. How could he not be nominated!? His supporting cast of Alec Baldwin, Albert Brooks and Gugu Mbatha-Raw is rock solid.
Concussion doesn't have a feel-good ending. Progress is made but all wrongs aren't made right. It does demonstrate that not all of our heroes are playing football, and the path to becoming a hero, like Omalu's, and team-doc-turned-supporter Dr. Julian Bailes, doesn't follow a straight line.
This is a movie that inspires us to be courageous.
In the final scene Omalu is gazing at a football field filled with young boys practicing. It's left to us to decide what he's thinking. That's good because the concerns the movie raises are complex — especially if you know a young boy who wants to play football.
Diane Wilson is a Chicago psychotherapist and coach, board-certified in neurofeedback, a treatment more recently used to rehabilitate former NFL players. She incurred her own traumatic brain injury in 2005 and made a successful recovery.
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