Well, by Hollywood’s typical “based on a true story” standards, the movie presents an interesting tale, but you’d be well-advised to remember that many of the details have little, in fact, to do with reality.
Which is a shame really, because the real-life story of Dr. Bennet Omalu’s efforts to shine a light on the connection between concussions and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in the face of a hostile NFL deserved a better treatment. In retrospect, the liberties that director and writer Peter Landesman took in regard to the truth look like the actions of a man who was trying way too hard to drive a personal agenda.
It leads to some serious problems including the portrayal of former Chicago Bears’ safety Dave Duerson for starters. In the movie, Duerson is presented as a foil to Omalu, a ‘villain’ who calls Omalu a “quack” in one scene before telling him to ‘go back to Africa.’ Duerson is also seen getting into an argument with former Philadelphia Eagles safety Andre Waters who has filed an application for benefits related to head injuries he suffered during his own NFL career. Duerson, of course, served at one point on a panel that considered whether former players were entitled to disability benefits, and Waters eventually committed suicide in 2006 leading to the discovery that he, too, had CTE.
The problem is, Duerson’s family says these interactions between Omalu and Waters never took place, and, of course, Duerson also committed suicide in 2011 and was later found to have CTE as well. Landesman blows off any criticism by saying that the movie is ’emotionally and spiritually accurate’ but that’s debatable when you consider that one of Duerson’s final acts was asking that his brain be sent to the NFL’s ‘brain bank’ to be studied. Ironically, his reward for contributing to the scientific understanding of CTE that Landesman’s film is also trying to shine a light on is to then be thoughtlessly sacrificed by the filmmaker. He becomes a metaphor for all the selfish NFL gatekeepers who denied the claims of others while knowing all along that Omalu’s work on CTE was legitimate. And, nobody, of course, would have known better than Duerson.
Then because Hollywood never met a conspiracy it didn’t love, Landesman chose to present the prosecution of Cyril Wecht as directly related to Omalu’s work when, in fact, there was no connection whatsoever. No, Omalu’s fight against the multi-billion dollar NFL isn’t big enough for the filmmaker who decides instead to frame it as a fight against the entire American establishment – from corporate America to the federal government which we are somehow to believe is in cahoots with the NFL. Of course, this makes no sense whatsoever when you realize that the government’s own scrutiny in the form of congressional hearings later plays a role in the NFL acknowledging the connections between concussions and CTE.
It’s a sloppy script that doesn’t stand up under closer scrutiny, and that’s the scene where the whole thing threatens to come apart under the weight of Landesman’s sensationalism. The actors – most notably Will Smith playing the role of Omalu – actually do a great job with what they are given to work with, and Smith in particular helps hold the film together through the more unbelievable moments with his sincere portrayal of the protagonist. At the moment where the FBI confronts Wecht in his office, however, even Smith can’t save the scene with his unconvincing reply – ‘you’re attacking him to get to me!’ This time it’s Albert Brooks in the role of Wecht who pulls the film through with another dose of dry humor and a deadpan delivery that helps you overlook the absurdity of the entire exchange. Fortunately, the film’s most awkward moment doesn’t completely sink the whole production.
There are other problems including a weird moment where they point out how many Steelers have died in recent years – 16 of the 77 NFL players from the 1970’s and 1980’s who died between 2000 and 2006 were Steelers – highlighting the fact that more than one in five played for Pittsburgh. There’s no further clarification – just the implication that Pittsburgh Steelers are dying at unbelievably high rates. This being a movie about CTE, the natural conclusion is that they are telling us this is the root cause, but there’s no attempt to understand or explain why that would mean players from the other 31 teams are, of course, dying at a much lower rate from CTE. That’s because Landesman knows the truth – that the majority of those Steeler deaths have nothing to do with CTE and that it’s probably nothing more than the statistical anomaly of flipping a coin and having it come up heads ten times in a row. But incidents like the 2005 death of former Steeler Steve Courson due to a falling tree (that he was cutting down, no less) don’t serve a purpose when you’re intentionally obscuring details.
Finally, some of the biggest problems are with the conclusions the movie draws about CTE itself. The movie never reveals details that might conflict with Omalu’s (or Landesman’s) conclusions, and regardless of what you walk out believing about CTE, the realities are far murkier than the filmmaker would lead you to believe. The study of Mike Webster’s brain, for example, was what led to Omalu’s initial discovery of CTE, and you would walk out of Concussion believing that it killed him. But Webster was also a known steroid and prescription drug abuser who suffered from clinical depression. He was abused by two alcoholic parents, and mental illness was rampant on both sides of his family even leading to the suicide of an uncle (and multiple attempted suicides by one of his siblings).
Any number of those factors could have contributed to Webster’s increasingly odd behavior after his NFL career, and establishing a direct causal relationship to CTE would be impossible regardless of what the movie implies. In reality, concussion science is still in its infancy, and that might be the biggest problem of all with Concussion – by trying too hard to land a death blow, the movie ends up flailing wildly at its intended targets. With an opportunity to tell Olamu’s story and present what we really do know about the links between concussions and CTE, Concussion instead ends up being as intentionally misleading as the NFL once was in its blanket denials.
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