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Diagnosis: Concussion Needs to Get Its Head in the Game

The NFL doesn’t have much to worry about regarding a film that features some powerfully infuriating moments but lacks significant insight beyond what most football fans already know – and are willing to ignore for the sake of cheering on their favorite team.
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It could have been a topical and searing indictment of the professional football’s checkered history of dealing with traumatic head injuries, but Concussion never makes it to the goal line.

Indeed, the NFL doesn’t have much to worry about regarding a film that features some powerfully infuriating moments but lacks significant insight beyond what most football fans already know – and are willing to ignore for the sake of cheering on their favorite team.

The film follows Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith), a highly educated Nigerian immigrant working as a forensic pathologist in Pittsburgh, where he performs the autopsy on Mike Webster (David Morse), a beloved Hall of Fame center who committed suicide.

Omalu reasons that Webster suffered from CTE, a medical term for a degenerative brain disease stemming from too many hits on the field. Autopsies on other players who died young reveal similar patterns from unknown injuries. “God did not intend for us to play football,” he says.

His discovery has the backing of his boss (Albert Brooks) and his wife (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), but Omalu gets plenty of backlash from medical rivals and especially the NFL, which launches a big-money campaign to discredit his research in the name of protecting its brand over the welfare of its players.

Smith is effective in a committed performance that requires an accent, as a quirky, naïve, and idealistic young doctor who becomes an unlikely crusader for justice. Omalu’s real-life efforts deserve the spotlight, and have led to some marginal changes in player-safety rules in football.

Yet despite some intriguing lab sequences, the film’s biopic approach tends to detract from the more compelling aspects of the story, such as Webster’s breakdown or the sad physical deterioration of other former players. It’s more about the scientist than the science.

The screenplay by director Peter Landesman (Parkland) focuses more on medicine and big business than football. The on-field action is limited mainly to archival footage.

Overall the film lacks subtlety and character depth, and its kid-gloves revelations aren’t all that surprising when you consider the violence inherent in the sport.

The immediacy of the story works both to its benefit and its detriment. The film might provoke some mild outrage, but Concussion is hardly the wide-ranging expose the subject deserves. League officials believe that fans won’t care about the long-term effects of such injuries, and it’s probably right.

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