Friday, January 01, 2016

Concussion: A Review


This is a movie about a committed, gifted physician who takes a stand against a powerful bureaucracy.  No, Concussion is not about Dr. Ben Carson but Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith), the gifted forensic pathologist who fought against efforts by the National Football League to suppress his research on the brain damage suffered by professional football players.

On many levels, this is a story about faith.  Omalu is a man of faith but he is also a man of science.  He clearly sees no conflict between the two and when he finds truth in science, he must share it with a religious fervor.   In doing so, he takes on a uniquely American expression of faith—football.

As one character points out, Omalu is attacking an industry (not just a sport) that “owns a day of the week, one that used to belong to the church.”  Another character describes football as a “blessing,” “salvation,” and “the beating heart of the city.”  Strong words for a secular entity that is essentially a business but has all the trappings of a spiritual movement.

Perhaps this is the place to say that I am a football fan, but one who has become concerned about what appears to be increasing injuries to players at all levels of the sport.  In fact, one young man
experienced a traumatic injury in a high school football game in our county this year.   The son of a Christian minister, his recovery is still in the balance.  Would I want my grandsons to play the game?  No.

Can one love the sport and fear its consequences at the same time?  In the film, Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), a former team doctor, expresses this dichotomy.  A good old boy from Louisiana, he loves the game but he feels the guilt of what it is doing to the players.  He becomes an unlikely ally  for Omalu.

David Morris delivers a stunning performance as Mike Webster, a former player for the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Kansas City Chiefs.  He personalizes the tragedy of a man suffering the consequences of being the best at what he does and taking the risks that involves.  His death starts Omalu on his search for truth.

Omalu excels in his own way as both a man of faith and a man of science, but he also exhibits a certain self righteousness when he thinks he is the only one who can communicate the truth.  This leads to a dramatic confrontation with Bailes, who has worked with him to make his research public.  When Omalu finally addresses the NFL Players Association, he has toned down his zeal and expresses his concerns with an attitude of humility and an attempt to understand what some see as good in the game.  Smith is excellent in his portrayal of Omalu.  Despite his action hero personae, he is one of the best actors in film today.

Concussion will contribute to the ongoing debate about the danger of debilitating injuries connected with sports, especially football.  Although the NFL reports that as many as 28 percent of former players may experience some type of cognitive dysfunction, has worked out a financial settlement with the players association,  and has taken steps this season to be more cautious about returning  possibly concussed players to a game, the organization still seems to be in denial about the dangers involved.

The final scenes of Omalu watching a high school football practice in his hometown force us to consider how difficult it will be to change a particular sporting culture.

Concussion shows us that a person of faith can still speak truth to power and find allies along the way, but simply being correct does not assure change or resolution.  The Old Testaments prophets are a testimony to the difficulty of pursuing such a path.

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