Concussion makes you sick with guilt for being an NFL fan. As the movie unfolds, the names and stories of these tormented souls bring back memories of news articles you’ve read, and you know that even if some of the details are fictionalized, all the important ones are true. And even though Sony’s leaked emails reveal they toned down the movie to avoid kicking the “hornet’s nest” that is the National Football League, the watered down version is horrifying enough. Concussion makes you feel dirty for ever having watched a Super Bowl, let alone having bought a ticket, because involvement as a fan means you actively contributed to the destruction of so many lives.
Mike Webster really died in his pickup truck. Justin Strezelczyk really died in a fiery crash because he drove into oncoming traffic while being chased by the police. Terry Long really drank antifreeze. Andre Waters really shot himself in the head. Dave Duerson really was an NFLPA executive who
fatally shot himself in the chest so he could donate his brain to science (and Junior Seau really did the same). All of these former players were 50 or younger when they died. All have been diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is a degenerative brain disease that causes symptoms of dementia including memory loss, aggression, confusion and depression. The scariest thing is that these are just a few of the former players who have died from CTE, or are living with CTE-like symptoms (a CTE diagnosis cannot be confirmed until after death), and there are thousands more who almost surely are living with the same symptoms and/or other neurological conditions like Lou Gehrig’s disease, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or dementia.
That alone would have been enough for Concussion to make me uncomfortable but a personal connection made these issues all too real. Growing up, I was a good athlete but my brother Bryan was better. He was good enough to be playing both basketball and rugby on provincial teams at age 16, and then it was time to make a choice. He chose rugby because he loved hitting people (which makes sense because he’s kind of an asshole too). Focusing on rugby made him even better at it, and after high school he went out west to play for the Canadian junior national team.
And then everything went south in a huge way. His first concussion was well in the past, suffered at age 14 while playing quarterback. We didn’t think of it at the time but as the hits piled up, every big hit hurt him more and took him longer to recover from. By the time he was playing national-level rugby, and getting hammered repeatedly by other 6’5″, 240 pound monsters like himself, he was also experiencing blackouts, memory loss, chronic pain and who knows what else. When he came to at the top of a mountain and had no idea how he had gotten there (turns out he ran the mile from his house then continued all the way to the top), it was a rude awakening in more ways than one. That was the end of his rugby career but only the beginning of his suffering. He lost years to pain, headaches, and nausea, he lost his desired career as a firefighter, and he almost lost himself.
Bryan’s story has taken a better turn lately, as he has found treatments and medications that help him manage his pain and live his life. But for me, Concussion was a terrifying reminder that Bryan could have been Mike Webster. He may still be. Bryan’s only 36, which is how old Justin Strezelczyk was when he drove into a tanker truck. Mike Webster was still playing football at 36, so 50 is still a long way off for Bryan and countless others.
Will Smith is decent in the role of Dr. Bennet Omalu, the coroner who autopsied Mike Webster and brought a lot of these issues to light after so many years of darkness and denial. His accent is not as distracting as in the trailer but I couldn’t escape the feeling that the script was designed to include the phrases that Smith was better at saying in an African accent (“Tell the truth. Tell the truth!”). The same accent probably would have been more palatable coming from an unknown actor but does this movie get made or seen if Will Smith isn’t starring? So while I probably wouldn’t have nominated him for a Golden Globe, I can see how he got one. He is obviously trying here and maybe that was the problem for me. In my view Albert Brooks (as Dr. Omalu’s mentor) and Gugu Mbatha-Raw (as his wife) both gave better performances than Smith.
Concussion makes sure to note the similarity between the NFL’s treatment of concussions and big tobacco’s treatment of cancer, and the comparisons are apt. They still ring true, especially when the class action settlement between the NFL and 4,500 former players was conditional on the NFL never having to admit what it knew about the danger of concussions, or how long it’s known. It’s easy to read between the lines.
The hits these players took (and gave) are going to kill many of them. And we watched and cheered. For me, Concussion made me realize that I’m long overdue to stop cheering and stop pretending that any of this is okay.
For that, I’m glad I saw Concussion. I’m not sure the movie works as well as it should, because it seemed at times to soften its message in an effort to not seem too preachy. I’m thinking particularly of a speech Smith’s character gives where he says he doesn’t hate football after being persecuted by the NFL for his research, which to me rang false. Still, despite that scene and a few similar missteps, Concussion got to me and made me think, and that’s worth something.
Concussion gets a score of seven (six for the touchdown and one for the PAT) out of ten.