By Nora Walker
Concussion gives us Will Smith’s best performance ever, an actual masterpiece in his amazing career. Speaking in a convincing Nigerian Ebo accent, he offers a convincing portrait of a fairly well known real-life hero who is about as eccentric as anyone Smith has ever played.
Dr. Bennet Omalu is not cut from any mold I’ve seen before. Quiet, intellectual, and devoutly religious, he’s shy to the point of seeming unengaged with the living. It’s not just that he’s a coroner, though that would keep most people at a distance. His eccentric nature takes center stage when he begins one of his many daily autopsies, speaking gentle assurances to the soul of the dead man on the table, before making his first cut.
Much of the film’s set-up is devoted to the plight of Iron Mike Webster (David Morse), formidable center for the Steelers not so long ago, now completely mad, a danger to himself and everyone around him. His big house and family are barely even memories. What’s left of Iron Mike lives in a dilapidated truck, surviving off the sale of his Super Bowl rings. Iron Mike is a superhero, a bum, a monster, and finally a corpse.
If Pittsburgh ignored Iron Mike’s degeneration, his death at age 50 is big news. Omalu hears of his fame shortly before beginning the autopsy. He promises the dead man that he will seek the truth. It’s a tougher task than he imagined. The cause of Mike’s insanity is definitely not Alzheimer’s, so what is it? Omalu needs a $20,000 dissection of the brain onto slides, and the Coroner’s Office won’t pay. If we needed further proof that Omalu is an academic at heart, uniquely unmotivated by money, here it is: He pays it himself and doesn’t even flinch.
What the script has set up at this point is a tunnel-visioned David with a relentless corporate Goliath soon to be unleashed. Omalu may be smart, but he’s an innocent in every way. He thinks the NFL will thank him when he publishes his findings. He sees what any fool can plainly see: the monumental football stadium, fans in Steelers garb everywhere, and the ubiquitous Steelers TV coverage. But he doesn’t understand. He has threatened a monster, and it’s coming after him and everyone he cares about, especially the collaborators who helped him publish his findings. Those include Iron Mike’s former team doctor (Alec Baldwin) and Omalu’s endearingly grumpy boss (Albert Brooks).
Some critics claim not to understand the romance in the story, though its purpose in the script is plain enough. After church, Omalu’s priest suggests that he offer his guest room to a pretty nurse (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), just arrived from Kenya. What follows is an innocent, arm’s length romance between two devoted Catholics, leading cautiously to marriage. It also leads to materialism.
After saving most of his salary for years, Dr. Omalu buys into an upscale community where he can build a grand house for his future wife and family. He was almost invulnerable when he lived a Spartan life in an unpretentious bachelor pad with an enormous microscope in the kitchen. As a newlywed with his first child on the way, he suddenly has a lot to lose, and opponent ready to strip him of everything if he will not disavow his research, his beliefs, and his promise to the soul of Iron Mike.
Peter Landesman’s direction and script maintain a vigorous intensity in a story which could have been wordy, nerdy and boring. That Dr. Omalu is still very much alive must have made the script harder to put together. But Landesman’s story arc is spot on. This movie, on one level, is the story of an unlikely American hero who won (sort of) in a contest no one else would’ve tried. It’s also a film we’re all likely to think about in the years ahead, as Omalu’s research is confirmed and extended, impacting football, soccer, fighting and many, many other sports.