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Monday, June 20, 2016

Concussion - Movie Review

Concussion is a must-see for any parent who has put their child through the American football program.

In my household, and in many other’s across the nation, the fall months are dedicated to Friday night high school games at the local high school and Saturday college games on the big screen TV. We all love our football. Everything, from the fabulous stadiums, to the marching bands, chili cheese dogs, peanuts, and big drinks, and of course, the cheerleaders, makes it a fun event. Team loyalties are passed down to the next generation, and for some fans, the vitriol over rivalries is comparable to gang warfare. The grand prize for any player (or parent of a player) is the dream of being one of the chosen few who go all the way to the NFL to live a life of wealth and fame, even for a short time.

But in my opinion, the greatest draw in any team sport event is the hidden metaphor for one’s spiritual walk, as well as life in general. Case in point, one of the Friday family’s favorite family films is the faith-based football movie, Facing the Giants, which does an excellent job of portraying the inner, spiritual struggle that a football game relays. Fighting against an opponent who is relentless in keeping one from achieving the prize is what makes the game worth watching. And the more daunting the opposition, the better.

Based on truth, Concussion does a nice job of destroying all of this allure of American football by showing the ugly underbelly of the sport. Will Smith is excellent as Dr. Bennett Omalu, who is a Nigerian-born forensic pathologist in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania in 2002. What would make the average person squeamish, Omalu finds fascinating beyond words. To him, cutting open a cadaver for an autopsy and extracting its organs is a communal experience with the deceased whereby the truth regarding how that person lived is allowed to emerge. Omalu performs his work like a master craftsman and is persistent and unrelenting in getting the answers he senses need to be exposed. He even goes so far as to spend his own money for additional scientific testing.

It is this doggedness for the truth that enables Omalu to discover a horrific brain disorder (CTE or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) that seems to plague professional athletes in the high contact sports arena, particularly football. When the body of a much-beloved Pittsburgh Steelers center, Mike Webster (a great performance by David Morse), shows up on his examination table, the puzzle pieces come together. Omalu discovers that the severe brain damage associated with CTE is due to the long-term effects of repeated trauma to the head, which cause hallucinations, dementia, severe pain, unexplained bouts of rage, and suicide. With the help of the Steelers former team doctor, Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), and county coroner, Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), Omalu publishes his findings in a medical journal and waits for the reaction of the NFL.  

As expected, the powers-that-be in the big-money sports machine do not take too kindly to their beloved game being vilified by a demure, religious, quiet-spoken pathologist whose home country has no affinity for American football.  Even though they dismiss his findings, Omalu remains vigilant and discovers more NFL victims to CTE, which only bolsters his claim. Finally, the League allows his research to be presented to them at a closed-door committee meeting. But when that day arrives, Omalu is barred from the room and must rely on a third party to plead his case.

**** SPOILER ALERT ****

At this point, the film takes a turn and wanders into the area of conspiracy theory, which makes for great excitement. Omalu, who has no relation to sports other than his connection with CTE victims, soon gets a taste of the extreme opposition that is pervasive on the football field. For example, the NFL harasses him with phone calls, stalkers, and car chases that place his family in harm’s way, all of which are disgraceful tactics to silence the truth. The unfairness of it all brings out the anger in the viewer; Omalu is just a simple, yet brilliant, man who has discovered the mystery behind the horrific and early demise of so many professional athletes. Heart-broken players and their family and friends ponder over how one can sink into such a terrible state at such a young age, and their agony cries out for an explanation. Armed with the truth, Omalu aims to stand firm and not buckle under the thug-like pressure that the NFL places on him to keep quiet. This man is truly an American hero.

Vindication comes when a former player-turned NFL executive commits suicide due to CTE and endorses Omalu’s findings in his suicide note. Finally, Omalu is allowed to present his research to an NFLPA conference made up of players and their families and League executives. In a clever movie moment, we see the specter of Mike Webster (the former Pittsburgh Steeler center) in the crowd, a sign that victory has been attained. Omalu work is accepted, and he is rewarded with the prestigious offer of chief medical examiner for the District of Columbia. It is no surprise that he turned it down in order to continue his work as a pathologist.

The movie makes a final statement that is very disturbing: through Omalu’s discovery, the effects of concussions in high impact sports have permeated down to the little league football field, and still the madness for the game has not abated. The final scene relays this truth very well. As Omalu heads to work, he observes a group of young boys playing football, complete with helmets and pads. As the players run toward each other, destined to collide, the crushing sound of helmets smashing against each other makes Omalu and the viewer wonder if all of his hard work really and truly mattered.

Concussion is a great film that educates, entertains, and makes one reconsider our fascination with American football! Watch it and enjoy!  

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