On the surface, Concussion has a promising premise: Dr. Bennett Omalu, an eccentric Nigerian forensic pathologist, takes on the orthodox medical establishment and the NFL after discovering chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease caused by repeated blows to the head, experienced daily by professional football players. But as the Times critic, Mahnola Dargis, adroitly points out, Concussion is basically done in by a lack of a central antagonist.
In fact, what director/writer Peter Landesmann ends up doing is creating a series of antagonists (some real, some completely fictional) who collectively attempt to take Omalu down. Omalu is depicted as outside of the mainstream, talking to cadavers as he works on them and defending his practice of disposing of new surgical instruments (despite orders from his boss, chief coroner Cyril Wecht, not to do that). One of Omalu’s co-workers takes an exception to his unorthodox style of working and is constantly threatening him. It’s a good way of suggesting that the eccentrics of society often are the subject of bullying—the only problem is that the co-worker is a completely fictional character, and Omalu was never subject to that level of persecution.
Much more egregious in regards to overstepping dramatic license, is the implication that the FBI, prodded by the NFL, went after Omalu’s boss, Dr. Wecht, as a warning to Omalu. While it was true at one point Dr. Wecht was arrested for corruption (the charges were later dropped), this occurred before Omalu published his findings about CTE. The arrest had nothing to do with Omalu’s beef with the NFL, but Landesmann is intent on making us believe that Omalu was perennially threatened.
More troubling is the widely accepted view that Dr. Omalu’s findings are actually true. He based his conclusions on a small group of football players who apparently suffered brain trauma during their football careers. But Daniel Enber, writing in Slate Magazine, cites a 2012 study that “several thousand NFL retirees, conducted by researchers at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, found that the former football players lived significantly longer than race- and age-matched controls.”
Enber went further by arguing that “CTE is indeed a widespread epidemic among former contact-athletes but…its clinical effects are pretty modest, since most men who have it are not depressed or otherwise impaired.”
It’s also difficult to conclude that, for those football players who exhibit symptoms related to years of concussion, CTE is the only cause of their symptoms. Indeed, Dr. Omalu’s first patient, the former star football player, Mike Webster, had a history of both steroid use as well as mental illness in his family. Webster was also hooked on painkillers due to chronic back pain. Was his suicide primarily due to CTE and not those other factors? Quite possibly, but one cannot say for sure.
Dr. Omalu did indeed suffer from being ostracised, particularly by his peers. Perhaps one of the strongest scenes in the film is when one of the NFL’s hand-picked physicians attempts to berate Omalu and defend the NFL’s policies. This is where Will Smith does a fine job of depicting Omalu’s righteous indignation against an orthodox medical establishment.
In the end, Concussion lacks suspense and tension. Omalu is depicted for the most part as a saint, supported by Prema, who is nothing more than a glorified cheerleader. Ironically, it was the players themselves who finally realised they could band together and take on their NFL bosses by instituting a lawsuit. It seems now that the NFL has become much more “sensitive” to the issue of traumatic brain injury as a result of CTE. It’s also probably true this was as much about money— the players having probably made out more than “okay” after their lawsuit was settled in a court of law.