Friday, December 25, 2015

Concussion: Grim reality check

Concussion (2015) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity and occasional profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.24.15

Great movie entrances are pure magic.

Consider George C. Scott’s eyebrow-raising pep talk, at the opening of Patton. John Travolta, strutting down the street, in Saturday Night  Fever. Or, more recently, Christian Bale’s meticulous “suiting up” and comb-over, in American Hustle. Everything you need to know about each of these characters, in one quick scene.

When renowned neurosurgeon Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin, center) finally gains an
audience with veteran NFL doctor Joseph Maroon (Arliss Howard, right), Dr. Bennet
Omalu (Will Smith) is enraged to hear that his meticulous research into brain injuries
is being dismissed. With prejudice.
Writer/director Peter Landesman grants Will Smith’s Dr. Bennet Omalu a similarly illuminating entrance, as Concussion begins. It’s a courtroom confrontation; Omalu has taken the stand to testify; his credentials have been challenged. In a bravura display of gentle chiding, unassuming pride and a droll insistence on full disclosure — leavened with an oh-so-slightly-mocking sense of humor — Omalu takes complete control of the room.

It’s a brilliant display of acting chops by Smith, who — from this moment onward — firmly has our hearts and minds. We’ve learned everything essential about this doctor, mostly crucially that he is a good and honorable man. That he respects the dignity of others, and insists — in turn — that they respect him.

The scene is marvelous: destined to become a much-viewed YouTube hit.

And, of course, the perfect way for Landesman to start his film.

Concussion, based on journalist Jeanne Marie Laskas’ exhaustive September 2009 exposé in GQ Magazine, charts Omalu’s initially lonely and Sisyphean struggle to get the National Football League to acknowledge that grown men bashing their heads together, even when wearing the (minimal) protection afforded by a helmet, likely isn’t good for their grey matter.

Indeed, far from “not good.” Potentially life-altering, even deadly.

Sensible people, confronted with such a suggestion, would nod and say, “Well, of course; what else would you expect?”

But the NFL circled the wagons, sent out the lawyers, and — possibly — pulled strings in Washington, D.C., to thoroughly discredit anybody daft enough to suggest such a thing. We’re talking football, folks: the one thing in Amuuurica capable of generating more foolish passion than the right for each citizen to own 437 guns.

But that’s getting ahead of things.

Landesman’s movie doesn’t always live up to his star’s entrance; the filmmaker leans rather too heavily on melodrama, the good guys ’n’ gals rather too saintly at times. But Landesman’s heart is in the right place, and it’s hard to complain when the narrative is this absorbing.

The story begins in 2002, in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County coroner’s office, where Omalu works as a forensic pathologist in a lab run by high-profile pathologist Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks). Omalu’s newest assignment: to perform an autopsy on the body of 50-year-old Mike Webster, the revered Steelers center, Hall of Famer and nine-time Pro Bowler ... who, later in life, has become a homeless wreck and a figure of ridicule.

We spend a bit of time with Webster, before he winds up on Omalu’s table. Character actor David Morse gives a haunting performance as the crazed former football giant: a ghastly, no-holds-barred depiction of a dementia-stricken husk. (Initially, I wasn’t even willing to believe this horrific figure was Morse; he looks that bad.)

Omalu displays his noble Nigerian heritage like a beloved suit of clothes; his approach to each “client” feels more like a priest giving last rites to a beloved parishioner. The doctor treats each case like a puzzle waiting to be solved; he speaks to and for the dead, promising that, together, they’ll find the answer.

These are delicately intimate scenes which, in lesser hands, might look and sound silly. But Landesman and cinematographer Salvatore Totino frame them with great care, and Smith delivers his gentle monologues with utter conviction; we don’t doubt his sincerity for a moment. James Newton Howard’s quietly poignant score emphasizes the pathos.

On the other hand, the mood is shattered a bit by some silly inter-office tension. Wecht ultimately calls the shots, but Omalu still must contend with an oafish supervisor — Mike O’Malley, overplaying as Daniel Sullivan — who is more cartoon than character. He’s a disappointing aberration in a film otherwise marked by better-modulated performances.

Omalu’s examination raises interesting questions; he receives permission to investigate Webster’s brain further. Wecht encourages the scrutiny, intrigued by the mystery, and also pleased by Omalu’s passion. (No surprise there, given Wecht’s career; this film doesn’t go into his back-story, but he’s best known for having challenged the Warren Commission’s report on John F. Kennedy’s assassination, not to mention an involvement in numerous other high-profile cases.)

Omalu grows convinced that he has discovered a new disease; he grants it a name — chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which acronyms nicely to CTE — and publishes the results in the peer-reviewed journal Neurosurgery. We see the delight of discovery in Smith’s eyes: the exhilaration of a dedicated doctor who has uncovered a Great Truth that will make a difference in the land, America, that he has embraced as his own.

As Laskas notes, in her exhaustive article, Omalu believed the NFL doctors would be pleased.

Only a newcomer to our country could have made such a miscalculation.

But, then, only an outsider would have considered going public in the first place.

“I wish I never had met Mike Webster,” Omalu later laments. But that’s entirely wrong, as Landesman repeatedly makes clear, speaking through other characters. Omalu neither knew nor understood football; he didn’t revere it in any manner, making him the perfect objective observer. At the same time, his ignorance of the likely NFL backlash precluded the awareness and apprehension that might have stopped an American-born doctor.

What follows blossoms into the heartbreaking, frustrating saga of an idealistic whistle-blower, akin to Silkwood or The Insider. But it’s much worse, in a fundamental way; entrenched whistle-blowers — think Russell Crowe’s Jeffrey Wigand, in The Insider — were assailed only by corporate bullies and lawyers. Omalu also dealt with hate mail and angry phone calls from (misguidedly) enraged football fans.

The resulting despair must have been crippling; Smith’s increasingly despondent gaze, strong as it is, likely gives us only a glimpse of the real Omalu’s anguish.

Fortunately, Landesman’s film isn’t solely doom and gloom. A parallel story follows the sweet relationship that blossoms with Prema Mutiso (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a Nairobi-born nurse who attends the same Hill District church. There’s little doubt where this romance is heading, but Smith and Mbatha-Raw make the journey quite touching.

Prema spends much of this film watching and listening to Omalu, and the actress’ eyes convey unwavering admiration: the best emotional anchor a man could want.

Alec Baldwin is equally fine as Dr. Julian Bailes, a neurosurgeon and former Steelers team doctor, who changes the course of Omalu’s apparently hopeless quest with a well-timed phone call. Bailes, long suspicious of football-related brain injuries, becomes an all-important conduit to the NFL ... although we can’t help wondering whether that’ll make any difference.

Brooks also stands out as the feisty Wecht, who snatches all of this script’s best lines, and delivers them with gusto. It’s the sort of showy role that should be remembered, come Oscar time.

As Laskas does in her article, Landesman draws the obvious parallel to the tobacco industry’s repeated public refusal to acknowledge any link between smoking and cancer; not for the first time, we cringe at the way corporate and political behavior subverts even a reasonable search for documented answers, when lives are at stake.

Such naysayers are represented here by Joseph Maroon (Arliss Howard), an NFL medical stooge who dismisses the symptoms displayed by Webster, Terry Long, Andrew Waters, Justin Strzelczek and other former players as “early onset dementia.” It’s fitting, and ironic, that the tortured Strzelczek is played here by NFL veteran-turned-actor Matthew Willig; it’s no surprise that Maroon is an entirely fictitious character.

Not so Roger Goodell (Luke Wilson, at his smarmy best), the newly minted NFL commissioner who in 2007 did his best to bury Omalu’s research. Goodell’s scenes are brief, and his few comments are a matter of public record.

Landesman plays fast and loose with the actual timeline; sidebar characters are compressed, a few key individuals omitted entirely. After all, this is a two-hour drama; it may cover actual events with sincerity, but it’s not a documentary. That said, Dr. Omalu should be pleased by his on-screen portrayal; certainly he was enthusiastic Monday evening, as he introduced the preview screening to a Sacramento theater packed with friends and supporters.

Landesman, a former investigative journalist himself, gives this — only his second feature film — a heartfelt touch. In a season dominated by dramas ripped from recent headlines — The Big Short, Spotlight — this indictment of tragic behavior reminds us, yet again, that we must react with suspicion when moneyed interests insist that “Nothing is wrong.”

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