Nigerian-born immigrant, Neuropathologist Dr. Bennett Omalu found something—in the brain of former Pittsburgh’s Steelers Mike Webster, a.k.a., Iron Mike—that he couldn’t ignore. Despite the appearance of a healthy brain in CAT scans, Webster’s brain under the microscope showed great concentrations of toxic proteins as result of repeated blows to the head over a lifetime of playing football, which most definitely triggered his deteriorating mental state after his retirement as a professional football player.
Over the course of the next five to six years, Dr. Omalu detected the same phenomenon in four other dead professional football players and reported his findings in the medical literature. Meanwhile, the NFL fervently denied that concussions contributed to mental health deterioration. Until…they couldn’t ignore the buzz any longer.
As a reader of this blog, it may come as no surprise to you that I have watched a lot of movie adaptations but have read very few of the books on which those movies are based. Concussion by Jeanne Marie Laskas, the non-fiction book chronicling the discovery of CTE and the fallout between the NFL and Neuropathologist Dr. Bennett Omalu as a consequence of that discovery, is one of a few exceptions, as I read the book last year.
Having read so few sources on which movies are based, makes me, in my opinion, to appreciate the movies better as I have no preconceived notions of how the material should be presented. Watching Concussion, I found myself questioning certain creative licenses such as presenting the movie in a thriller package, as opposed to a life journey.
I had issues with several scenes that distorted the timeline in the book or amplified the message in misleading ways. For example,
1) the detention and subsequent trial of world renowned pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht. In the movie, it seems that the FBI had an issue with Dr. Omalu putting the NFL in the spotlight—for keeping football players in the dark as to the negative impact of repeated blows to the head—and forced his hand by citing his immigration status to make him testify against his mentor as a means of silencing both. That wasn't the case at all. Dr. Wecht's case, though flimsy at best, was rooted in professional rivalries rather than on the long reach of the professional football association.
2) there was a scene in which Prema, Dr. Omalu's wife, was followed by a stranger's car to submit Dr. Omalu into silence; as a result of that chase, Prema had a miscarriage. If that ever happened, it wasn't in the book at all.
The reason I had issues with those scenes is that, though they appear in the movie for shock value, they diminish the veracity of the account overall, and that's too bad because the book Concussion was flawless. In spite of the NFL trying to strip Dr. Omalu of his scientific standing, and many threatening phone calls, their lives were never in physical danger (at least I didn't get that message from the book).
Having mentioned what I thought were the bad aspects of the movie, I’m going to redirect towards the good ones. The movie was successful illustrating scientific concepts, resorting to comparisons between animals’ anatomies and that of a human head to convey why blows to the head may damage the brain.
I thought this was among the best movies of the year, and I must say this because 2015 was a year full of very mediocre movies, some of which made it to the Oscars on the basis of acting alone. Was it Oscar worthy? Absolutely! In fact, watching Concussion, I was surprised that the movie didn’t do as well as I expected because its topic is incendiary and relevant. Maybe years of talking about the negative impact of concussions in sports, have diluted the severity of the message.
Was Will Smith’s performance worthy of an Oscar nomination? Most definitely! I thought Smith’s performance in Concussion was on par with the one in Seven Pounds, which most people don’t like but I think it’s one of his strongest performances, and The Pursuit of Happyness. I don’t cite Ali because I have never watched it.