Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Jan 01, 2016 4:31 am 
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Too good a hero?

It is sad to say this, but the fact that its hero salvages his life and his marriage weakens Concussion as a movie and as a whistleblower story. One thinks of the superior model of Michael Mann's grimly memorable cigarette industry tale, The Insider. Jeffrey Wigand, Russell Crowe's legal crusader, doesn't salvage much of anything, but he wins his long struggle against big tobacco. Dr. Bettett Omale, the brilliant forensic pathologist from Nigeria with seven degrees played impressively by Will Smith, does save his looks, his health, his family, and his young African wife, Prema Mutiso, (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who was so impressive in Belle and Beyond the Lights). He also saves his value as a role model for African Americans, and for that matter, for Africans.

This is a tale about how terribly dangerous American football -- as addictive and as lucrative an industry as tobacco -- is for its professional players. Twenty-eight percent of them are likely to suffer brain damage in the course of their careers. Dr. Omale is the man who brought this tragic fact to light. The link with the cigarette industry is made, with the Pittsburgh Steelers (Dr. Omale lives in Pittsburgh) and the National Football League standing in for big tobacco. Dr. Omale and Prema move to California at the height of his battle, and the movie stumbles -- even though three years later, the battle is at least partially won, with a suit by 5,000 players against the NFL. This is an important story. But the movie wobbles.

It's snappy much of the way nonetheless. Dr. Omale engages and awes us. He so much respects his cadavers he talks to them, and he insists on throwing away all the surgical tools he uses after each autopsy. He does one of a former Pittsbugh Steeler, Mike Webster (a memorable David Morse) -- who has died in his fifties, after turning into a bum. He insists on doing expensive research on Webster's brain, and after several other cases, he co-authors a paper on the disease he names as CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Albert Brooks is impressive as Dr. Cyril Wecht, Dr. Omale's mentor, sponsor, and colleague, whom the FBI, manipulated by the Steelers or NFL, threaten to destroy, to force Dr. Omale to disappear. In other words, it gets nasty.

Dr. Omale's new chief ally becomes Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin, also impressive), a former Steeler doctor who knows what Dr. Omale is saying is true. Intense hostility comes from prominent neurosurgeon allied with the Steelers Dr. Joseph Maroon -- played with reptilian chilliness by Arliss Howard, who looks rather like the real Dr. Maroon, still in active practice. What will he think of this? Will he see this movie? "That went well," says Dr. Bailes to Dr. Omale after their nasty ten minutes with Dr. Mroon. It is tempting to say "impressive" next to each actor's name, which points to something unfortunate, too diligent, proper, and a little canned about this admirable and important movie.

I was unprepared for how well Will Smith submerges into the accent and manner of Dr. Omale: he is sitll a star and he can really act and every scene he's in is juicy and fun to watch. Dr. Omale is impeccable, and yet not too much so. He's a man of passion, and passion isn't perfect. He talks to his cadavers. He's a little stiff. But when he first goes out with Prema he confesses he's discovered that his body is "a machine made for dancing." Some of the writing is overly schematic. When Dr. Omale is called back three years later from California to address the NFL his words are implausibly poetic and ideal (even if the real Dr. Omale talked that way). Some of the camerawork and editing are too pointed and emphatic. (The movie is at the mercy of Dr. Omale's idealism and charisma.)

The movie doesn't finally wrestle hard enough with how ugly this story is. It must be a tough story for lovers of American football too. We do repeatedly glimpse retired, and still working, professional football players who are disintegrating due to what is later identified as CTE. There are the nasty meetings with NFL officials. But again, Dr. Omale's purity and righteousness strangely drags down the tale. Director Peter Landsman is a former investigative journalist. His passion is for stories about finding the truth. He previously wrote the screenplay for Michael Cuesta's Kill the Messenger, starring Jeremy Renner as a determined reporter grimly attacked for revealing the CIA malfeasance in Nicaragua. It was humorless. This has much more panache and glitter. Most of the way it is enjoyable as well as informative. But despite its importance and good acting it is not a great movie.

Comcussion, 135 mins., opened in US cinemas Christmas Day 2015.

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