This Sporting Death
Criminal, corrupt, cynical, venal, hypocritical, drug-dependent, wildly popular and incalculably rich, sports has continued on its merry way despite several years now of revelations of egregious unsportsmanlike behavior. Even among marginalized peoples, hunger for heroes and victories remains voracious and governments collude. Concussion hits it on the head, that God is Number One just ahead of American football.
Scripting from “Game Brain” magazine article, Peter Landesman directs this newest fact-based drama in which, though his accent slides a bit and his eyes are too often shiny-wet as Dr. Bennet Omalu, Will Smith at last shows that he can act.
At three minutes north of two hours, the film touches on too many threads, the most sellable of which is the hot-button issue of ignored head injuries in athletics. Concern long focused on punch drunk (dementia pugilistica) in boxing but now extends to, among others, world football, i.e., soccer, and our insular variation of armor-plated rugby-football, praised by icon Vince Lombardi as “collision sport, not a contact one like dancing.”
Secondly is the professional and personal redemption of Pittsburgh Steelers team physician Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), who bridles at a suggestion that he is out for himself. Then, too, a large portion of the story is the humanizing of the workaholic super-achiever Nigerian Igbo -- dad’s photo is here to prove it -- physician, providing him with softening love and family. This is achieved through just-arrived Prema Mutiso (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Her Kenyan hides a past trauma, faked a personality, is an easy confidante for him to speak his thoughts aloud for us, and allays his doubts so that he can continue along the moral Christian path.
Finally, feel-good but thankfully resisting any hint of playing the race card, there is the American Dream, vindicated for these two Africans (and thus all of us). Close to being abandoned along the way because bludgeoned -- “jacked up” in the jargon -- by the mega-millions of the sports-entertainment complex, the principle is borne out that even the newly arrived can become not just Americans but successful honored suburban ones.
Among his obsessive multi-activities, forensic neuropathologist Omalu performs Allegheny County autopsies, talking first to the cadavers whose aid he invokes before working to R&B on headphones. Though he and his methods are despised by morgue superior Danny Sullivan (Mike O’Malley), he is drawn to uncovering the causes of death at fifty of down-and-out pro football hero Mike Webster (David Morse). The multiple-degreed doctor neither dances nor watches TV nor knows diddly-squat about this homegrown (or any) sport, but using his own savings he uncovers scientific proof that seventy-thousand hits over “Iron Mike’s” eighteen-year career at least contributed to CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive degeneration detectable in the brain only after the sufferer’s death.
Erratic, aggressive or psychotic behavior, headaches, double vision, voices in the head and other “cognitive impairment” physical and emotional problems dog retired National Football League stalwarts like Andre Waters, Justin Strzelczyk, “Double D” Dave Duerson (Richard T. Jones, Dan Ziskie, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and Terry Long, mostly but not exclusively linemen. Suicides or early deaths from other causes further confirm his ideas, and he is able to win over his county superior Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), Dr. Steven DeKosky (Eddie Marsan), Bailes and a couple other practitioners and officials and, importantly, convince relatives of the deceased to allow their loved one’s brains to be dissected for study.
Under Commissioner Roger Goodell (Luke Wilson) and pliant league doctors, the NFL at first ignores or denies his findings but then initiates a publicity campaign to discredit them and him, to the point of harnessing the FBI to threaten criminal proceedings.
To this day the league and its corporate sponsors downplay and distort the evidence, and the manipulable tailgate-partying, palatial stadium-subsidizing public goes along. Concussion cannot have made the sport happy at any level. Even as it clouds the hard-core problem with soft side issues, it is a best step so far in the right direction.
(Released by Sony Pictures and rated “PG-13” for thematic material including some disturbing images, and language.)