In 2002, Will Smith received his first Academy Award nomination for his role in Ali, a riveting biopic about Muhammad Ali directed by Michael Mann. Smith managed to disappear into the role of Muhammad Ali and delivered a brilliant performance as “The Greatest” boxer of all time.
Despite Ali’s being able to “Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” the sport subsequently exacted a devastating toll on the champ. Ali developed a host of neurological disorders as a consequence of taking so many hits to the head.
While fans call it being “punch drunk,” the clinical term for the condition is chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Ironically, Will Smith may receive another Oscar nomination for Concussion, a picture in which he plays Dr. Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian born physician who discovered the link between football and brain damage when he was a forensic pathologist in Pennsylvania.
Omalu first recognized something was amiss while performing an autopsy on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ former center Mike Webster (David Morse), who died at 50 while suffering from a combination of amnesia, depression, and dementia. Dr. Omalu was shocked to observe that, as a result of CTE, the Hall of Famer had the brain of a
very old man, so he decided to posthumously examine the brains of other National Football League veterans who had also died prematurely.
Lo and behold, the research revealed that they all had suffered from CTE, presumably as a result of the pounding their skulls had received on the field. Unfortunately, when Omalu tried to go public with his findings, he was threatened and discredited by an army of lawyers and doctors hired by Commissioner Roger Goodell (Luke Wilson) to protect the NFL’s image.
Concussion is reminiscent of The Insider (1999), an exposé recounting the ordeal of the whistleblower who took on the tobacco industry when it was denying any link between smoking and cancer.
The movie was directed by Peter Landesman (Parkland). He adapted it to the screen with the help of investigative journalist Jeanne Marie Laksas from an article titled “Game Brain” that she had written about the attempted cover-up in the October 2009 issue of GQ magazine.
Landesman surrounded Smith with a talented cast, starting with the gifted Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Omalu’s feisty wife Prema. The cast also includes Oscar nominees Alec Baldwin (The Cooler) and Albert Brooks (Broadcast News); and Hill Harper, Richard T. Jones, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, and Eddie Marsan.
Concussion is a marvelous Will Smith vehicle, one that he just may drive all the way to the Oscars on Sunday, February 28th.
Excellent (****). Rated PG-13 for profanity, mature themes, and disturbing images. Running time: 123 minutes. Distributor: Sony Pictures