“What I wouldn’t give right now to have my hands under Mike Webster’s butt one more time.”
So said Pittsburgh Steelers Super Bowl-winning quarterback Terry Bradshaw in 1989 during his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction speech. It was typical Bradshaw – part barnyard jocularity, part sophisticated showbiz from the lummox-in-residence among football commentators.
The man who was one of those given a shout out in Bradshaw’s Lil’ Abner act at the Hall of Fame induction – Steelers center “Iron” Mike Webster – was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997. In 2000, he was named the center of the NFL’s all-time team. In 2002, he was dead at the age of 50 – the event recounted in “Concussion” as the beginning of everything else that takes place in the movie.
Before Webster’s death he was a case study in dementia, depression, addiction and ruin. He’d been briefly homeless (living out of his pickup truck) and was known to self-medicate for his depression however he could. He’d lost everything a man could lose.
What is still going on in 2015 is the raging debate about what to do about the incontestable and horrible facts uncovered in the years following Webster’s horrible death. It’s been down at the grass roots for a while: is this a sport parents want to sign on the dotted line for when asked to give their kids permission to play?
“Concussion” – one of the year’s best films – is about the Nigerian-born Pittsburgh pathologist who refused to sign off on the death of Webster, whose brain cells exhibited the same signs of the dementia as those found in the elderly. His name is Dr. Bennet Omalu, and he’s played by Will Smith in the best performance of his life. It’s likely to remain the best thing he ever does for the rest of it, too. It’s that good, despite some front office interference.
What Omalu troublesomely crusaded for was the discovery of a new disease – Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE. Its origins couldn’t be simpler as Smith’s character repeatedly explains it throughout “Concussion.” The human brain is encased in fluid inside the skull and was simply not designed to withstand the brutal and violent blows to the head football players sustain on the field. (The human knee, as we all know, wasn’t designed to endure everything modern athletic endeavor puts it through either.)
The physical and behavioral consequences of constant concussion are dire. And they are doubly tragic because they are still only confirmable after death – in an autopsy. Without one, no one can be absolutely sure of anything.
Let’s be blunt here – “Concussion” is hagiography about Omalu in the guise of a tense and well-made medical mystery. Our living saint – hero at the very least – is a coroner whose devotion to the truth was so uncompromising that he actually paid his own money for expensive laboratory tests on Webster’s brain.
To his colleagues, Omalu was at best foolhardy, and, at worst, un-American in his reckless disregard for football’s monarchic place in American life. As his superior – played with acidic wit by Albert Brooks in a “serious” role – observes, Omalu is doing battle with a football league that “owns a day of the week. The same day the church used to own.”
And that’s why you need to file away everything conventional about “Concussion” – the hagiography about Omalu and “disease of the week” investigation – and think of its massive potential power. That’s how good Smith’s performance is as Omalu and that’s how disturbing it is, no matter what cuts may have been made. Movies have power, and the potential news made by this one is not good for the NFL or football in general.
When movies make trouble, it can be very big. Anyone who thinks that a seismic shift in attitudes toward homosexuality could have happened without the movies “Philadelphia” and “Brokeback Mountain” is sadly mistaken.
The writer/director of “Concussion” is Peter Landesman, a fellow whose journalistic pedigree includes investigative reporting for Time magazine, the New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is slammed hard by this movie. The implication is, at one point, that the FBI and one Washington administration were carrying the NFL’s water. They investigated Omalu and threatened him; they tried to buy him off. Neither worked, according to the movie.
He continued finding CTE in the autopsies of NFL football players (Andre Waters, Dave Duerson).
Sony’s hacked emails indicated cuts were made to the film to appease the NFL. It isn’t hard to imagine collusion. Both Columbia Pictures and the NFL are in the entertainment business, the latter to a gigantic degree.
However formally conventional it may be, this is a strong and well-written and acted movie that is out to make real trouble for both the NFL and football. Only so much denial of that can be believed.
And that’s trouble for hundreds of millions of us. We love football. We love devoting Sundays to it.
Watching this crusading coroner from Nigeria fight it tooth and claw for the benefit of the players who need to know how they’re endangering themselves with every game and indeed every practice, is both a terrific story and a soul search.
“My speciality,” says Omalu in the film, “is the science of death ... The dead are my patients. I treat them with respect.”
Because of Omalu, people increasingly want lives of football players treated with more respect, at the very least.
See the movie. Please. It treats you with respect, the way you want movies to.
Starring: Will Smith, Albert Brooks, Alec Baldwin, Luke Wilson, Gugu Mbatha-Raw
Director: David Landesman
Running time: 123 minutes
Rating: PG-13 for disturbing images and theme
The Lowdown: The struggles of the Pittsburgh pathologist who discovered a ruinous disease (CTE) linked to the kind of repeated head traumas experienced by football players.