IFWT_Concussion Will Smith

“Tell the truth” – Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith)

From the first time I saw the trailer for the movie Concussion that scene stood out the most to me. Hype surrounding the movie promised a film taking on the mighty NFL and exposing the world to CTE (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and it’s affect on our beloved football stars. While it indeed tackled that issue (how strongly is subjective), what I also drew from it was the story of a man trying to live the American dream.

From the very first scene shown in the trailer Smith is seen telling his wife Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), “When I was a boy heaven was here and America was here (just below it)”. Throughout the movie if you pay attention you will see more scenes and quotes depicting Omalu’s quest to be an “American”. In contrast, the Nigerian immigrant ends up discovering a disease that threatens the biggest sport in America.

The opening scene focuses on beloved Pittsburgh Steelers lineman Mike Webster (David Morse). Webster is homeless living in his car; he’s suffering from severe changes in mood including depression and anxiety. He has a loss of cognition and erratic behavior. It is through Webster and later through other players Justin Strzelczyk (Matthew Willig) and Dave Duerson (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) whom we actually see kill themselves that is when CTE becomes real to us and not just something former players and the NFL are fighting about.

Our first scene with Dr. Bennet Omalu is he going through his extensive list of college degrees while testifying in a murder case. It is here we learn that Omalu is intelligent and meticulous. A forensic pathologist, Omalu infuriates one of his co-workers by speaking gently to the bodies and believing they have a story to tell about why they are now laying on his table. Omalu is given the job of running the autopsy on Webster. While Omalu’s coworker and major Steelers fan does not want to desecrate the body of the beloved star, Omalu is determined to find out how Webster’s brain deteriorated at a young age and does not believe its early onset Alzheimer’s as other doctors attributed to past football patients. Omalu runs a serious of expensive tests, which he must pay for out of his own pocket and it is then he discovers CTE.

Omalu faces opposition from the NFL and other doctors who refer to him as a “quack”. He is helped by Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), a former NFL doctor who becomes Omalu’s main supporter. At one point Omalu says, “I am the wrong person to have discovered this,” when actually he is the perfect person because he is not an American. Omalu doesn’t fully understand the power of the NFL, which has “it’s own day of the week”.

After Omalu publishes his CTE work in a medical journal it begins to gain traction. We do not see much of what the NFL does to try and stop Omalu, they are more like a shadowy villain; there’s phone calls in the night, the appearance of someone possibly outside his house, and someone appearing to follow his wife Prema while she’s driving home. The FBI threatens to deport Omalu if he doesn’t testify against his boss, the person whom supported Omalu’s findings from the beginning. It is here again we see Omalu’s desperation to remain in America and become an American.

Omalu fights through each obstacle but if you’re expecting a Hollywood ending in the case of CTE well there is none to be had here. If you’ve been paying attention to the news, the NFL reached a $1 billion settlement in a class action suit filed by thousands of former players. It allowed compensating victims, paying for medical exams and underwriting research, but the NFL still denies any wrongdoing. The NFL also pulled out of funding a CTE study at Boston University that will be led by Dr. Robert Stern, a prominent Boston University researcher who has been critical of the league.

But this is an American movie after all so it had to be tied up in a neat bow. Omalu becomes an American citizen and is seen in the White House being offered the highest position of investigating deaths; he hits the pinnacle of the American dream. He turns it down however and moves to California with his wife Prema where they have children and live happily ever after.

Though the film falls short of the hard-hitting expose some of us were looking forward to, it does open our eyes and hearts to CTE and hopefully takes us further in the right direction.

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