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Concussion' hits hard

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Based-on-true-story film part sports movie, part procedural

The NFL is the most popular sports league in America and it isn't close. However, there's a dark dichotomy to the game. It's a blend of grace and violence; the participants receive lavish compensation, but also undertake tremendous physical risks.

However, the most insidious of those risks has only just been dragged into the light.

It's kind of incredible to think about, but it is only recently that any real consideration was given to the effects of the thousands of collisions absorbed by professional football players over the course of a career. It was something that simply wasn't discussed as the public continued to cry out for ever increasing levels of violence.

'Concussion' based on a GQ article (later expanded into a book) by Jeanne Marie Laskas is the story of Dr. Bennet Omalu, a pathologist who stumbles upon the realities behind those thousands of impacts namely, a disease that is drastically affecting the brains of football players.

Omalu (Will Smith, 'Focus') is a Nigerian immigrant working as a forensic pathologist in Pittsburgh under the supervision of coroner Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks, 'A Most Violent Year'). He is a hard worker and talented, albeit a little eccentric for the taste of some. He is perfectly content with his life, but his tidy existence is soon upended when a famous face winds up on his autopsy table.

Mike Webster (David Morse, 'The Boy') is a Hall of Fame football player, the center for the legendary Pittsburgh Steelers teams of the 1970s. His life has completely fallen apart; he is in constant pain, he hears voices, his family has abandoned him, he lives in his truck. When he dies at the age of 50, Dr. Omalu questions why.

This simple question leads him to the discovery that something is very wrong with Mike Webster's brain something that doesn't appear on the standard scans. This discovery a degenerative disorder Omalu dubs CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) plunges Omalu into conflict with one of America's biggest and boldest institutions in the NFL.

Despite allies like Dr. Wecht and former Steelers team doctor Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin, 'Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation'), Omalu faces an uphill battle in his effort to get anyone in the NFL offices to pay any attention to his findings. The league isn't interested in the truth about long-term effects of concussive impacts and is willing to go to great lengths to simply make Dr. Bennet Omalu go away.

As sports movies go, 'Concussion' is a pretty solid effort. However, there have been numerous arguments from both sides regarding the veracity of the film's facts; in addition, there has been a bit of a tug-of-war between the league and the studio, which has resulted in a movie that probably doesn't go far enough in either direction.

That being said, there's no denying that it is an interesting story that raises some complicated questions with regards to our culture's relationship with football. The degree to which the NFL was committed to masking the truth is eye-opening; yes, they have made great strides in trying to address player safety in recent years, but there's still a long way to go.

A huge part of this film's success springs from the exceptional performance at its heart. Will Smith hasn't been WILL SMITH for a number of years now, but this film is a nice reminder of just how great he can be when he's truly invested in his performance. Smith really disappears into this part in a way that we rarely see from him his take on Omalu is subtle and powerful, balancing courage and bravado. He's extremely good.

The supporting cast has some highlights as well. It's always great to see Albert Brooks working; he's wonderfully coarse as Dr. Wecht. Alec Baldwin dials the smug smarm back a notch or three and winds up giving one of his more genuine performances. Morse leads the way among the actors playing former players; Matthew Willig plays Justin Strzelczyk, who some might remember from his days as an offensive lineman at UMaine. Also Luke Wilson plays Commissioner Roger Goodell; he's not bad, but it feels like some of his stuff might have been left on the cutting room floor.

Director Peter Landesman (who also wrote the screenplay) has done good work in capturing not only the procedural aspects of the medical and legal pieces of the puzzle, but the frantic kineticism of the game of football. The balance that is struck is what makes 'Concussion' so engaging to watch.

The NFL probably doesn't want football fans to watch this film, though one gets the impression that the league might have exerted influence over the end result. Still, it's a story that every educated fan of the game should understand and 'Concussion' definitely makes an impact.

[4 out of 5]

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