By Kate “One Take Kate” Taylor
It’s probably pretty clear which American sports code I prefer. I can give you a couple of guesses but my penchant for wearing player jerseys, babbling about an ‘All Star Weekend’ for the rest of this month and generally discussing things like dunks or free throws, should give you the picture.
It’s not NFL. So going into Concussion I was expecting a film that was potentially going to glorify the sport of American Football, protecting its hallowed history and raising it up as a paragon of athletic achievement and community hero worship. It’s not. In fact it’s perhaps going so much in the opposite direction of the later that it becomes apparent what Concussion really is: the true story of the shocking medical research discoveries of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (or CTE) made around the post-playing career conditions of NFL players in the early 2000s, particularly from the Pittsburgh Steelers.
|Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin) and Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) discuss their shocking information. Image via Roadshow Films NZ|
Instead of positive reinforcement in regards to the safety of the sport, Concussion works to uncover what happened to some players as they shifted from the limelight into normal society. They’re an elite collective of very particular and publicly recognised people who’ve shared an experience like no other, along with all the physical burdens that are attributed to that too. It’s a stern, dramatic and clinical sports movie. It’s not an uplifting ‘confetti on the parade of heroes at the end’ type of a film…so if you’re looking for that, this ain’t it. What’s perhaps the most disturbing in regards to the based-on-a-true-story content of Concussion is that, for all the damaging on field collisions and head traumas that are being discussed by the characters, a grainy effect real life footage portion of the in-game action is edited in. Almost trying to smack it home to the audience that as Dr Bennet Omalu puts it and I’m paraphrasing, humans are not anatomically designed to play American Football. Google any of the players’ names and what happened to them is right there for you to find out for yourself. Mike Webster. Andre Waters. Dave Duerson. Justin Strzelczyk. These are all real players who were discovered to have suffered from CTE and had no true support or understanding of what they were afflicted with and going through.
|Misunderstood and dedicated: Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu in Concussion. Image via|
Will Smith has made a solid turn as Dr Bennet Omalu in Concussion, with his mastered performance mechanics of an excellent Nigerian accent and small trait inflections. Only one of America’s favourite sons could be the actor to take on a role of a foreign medical academic that’s tackling big business, the game, the fans and the management of NFL in support of the forgotten, broken players. Smith’s Dr Omalu does find love (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw), buys a home, has an agreeable lifestyle, gets married and creates a family for himself, however these personal life blips are really only shown to give you an idea of where Dr Omalu was at in his personal timeline as he stayed dedicated to exposing truths for the betterment of players of a game he’d never even watched. It is refreshing to see Smith transitioning to perhaps an older character than we’ve seen before which made me pretty excited to see what he’ll do with a more mature leading man, character role career as he ages gracefully.
|(L-R) Will Smith, The real Dr. Bennet Omalu and Screenplay Writer and Director of Concussion Peter Landesman on set.|
Concussion is quite the star studded affair for brilliant character actors too such as Albert Brooks (Drive), Stephen Moyer (True Blood) or Alec Baldwin but its David Morse who stole the show for me. You might remember David Morse as the cool best buddy role to Tom Hanks in The Green Mile? In Concussion Morse brings a poignant example of broken down Pittsburgh Steelers hero Mike Webster in his sad decline. Morse is incredibility haunting in his performance and definitely stuck out for me.
|David Morse speaking about his role as Mike Webster on Concussion. Image via|
There’s nothing more quintessentially American, at least to any other nation viewing from the outside – than NFL culture and the story of a downtrodden underdog city rising again. Concussion works to reveal some of the detail around the early 2000s that for Pittsburgh like many other cities in the U.S., NFL was a religion and their only joy. NFL was the only thing that kept everyone going, it’s the one thing they could talk about when someone else they knew had just lost their job or had their home foreclosed on in a city where small businesses were closing their doors and those in need far outweighed those that were willing or were in a position to give.
|The real Mike Webster of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Image via|
NFL gave some levity, something to look forward to and something to discuss other than the seeming crushing defeat of life around them. Concussion straddles the line of understanding the need for the game and also the complete severity of what its training and in-game plays are doing to its players from the professional level, right down to the junior players, who’re encouraged to hit and impact just as hard as their prime time predecessors.
Grim and slow-burning, ultimately Concussion reveals that trying to turn the tide on an American pastime as popular as this is perhaps a futile effort and that continued denial of the post-traumatic effects of CTE will only end in heartbreak for the families that the culture of NFL works so hard to knit together.
CONCUSSION is out 18th February in NZ Cinemas.