This biographical sports film brings to the public’s attention the true story of the controversial research done by forensic pathologist and medical examiner Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith, “Focus”). The research concludes football players can suffer long-term mental health issues from repeated head trauma. Unfortunately, the weak characterization generates more sympathy for the Nigerian doctor himself than the ill football players he studies, lessening the dramatic impact of his discovery.
Omalu’s desire to be successful in the United States is what underpins the story while taking the focus away from its subject. The film ignores the National Football League’s role in hiding the suffering of its players by instead focusing on the doctor’s strong attachment and high regard for the country, inciting both pride for his inspired success and shame for his rejection from the American scientific community. All the while, it ignores the principal entity that is fighting against his work. The way he modeled his goals after his superiors even though they have diversely different backgrounds illustrates how he was not cognizant that his race and origin could hinder his career. This builds our sympathy for the naive character when his research is dismissed by his peers not only for having foreign credentials but for being so un-American by attacking the nation’s most popular sport. Though he becomes a sympathetic protagonist as a result, it turns the film into a chronicle of Omalu’s personal struggles that barely touch on the tragic deaths of the football players that fueled his work.
The prominent role of his deep faith, on the other hand, renders him a two-dimensional hero. The crosses in his house, Bible on his nightstand and inability to let loose at a club when celebrating the publication of his research with then-girlfriend Prema Mutso (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, “Jupiter Ascending”) limit his character development by having race and religion being the sole drivers of his character. The extent to which Omalu is caricatured is overbearing, as shown by how he goes to extremes to humanize the cadavers with which he works, at the cost of following Western norms that minimize waste. His straightlaced nature and childlike inability to believe how malicious his fellow scientists are in trying to silence his findings rightfully gets him called a “self-righteous bastard” by supporter and colleague Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin, “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation”). His constant references to the divine and the benefits of seizing opportunity make his character more of a Christ-like symbol than a real doctor.
Omalu’s wife brings an unimportant love story into the mix even though she adds undue stress to the protagonist as he deals with federal law enforcement. Her miscarriage in the midst of the backlash causes Omalu to blame himself for taking personal time to recover after dealing with the FBI, after having explicitly stated he does not drink or socialize often. This conflicts with her sole relevance to the film – inspiring Omalu to enjoy himself more. As her profession as a registered nurse is highlighted at the beginning of “Concussion”, it was a let-down that Mutso was featured so prominently even though she did not play a role in her husband’s work.
In contrast, the depictions of the football players suffering from the previously unknown chronic traumatic encephalopathy while the NFL failed to stand up for its players by resisting to acknowledge Omalu’s findings was effectively distressing. This dynamic was brilliantly illustrated by Dave Duerson, a former-player-turned-NFL-Players-Association executive (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, “Trumbo”) ignoring the mental health concerns of his past teammate and friend Andre Waters (Richard T. Jones, “Hot Pursuit”), only to commit suicide, when unable to cope with the same CTE-caused neurological deterioration himself.
As a whole, the film struggles to dramatize the state of football that led to the finding of CTE while telling the behind-the-scenes story of the man who discovered it at the same time. Although it has strong directing and commendable acting, particularly by Smith, the message is poorly relayed by focusing on the obstacles Omalu faced instead of the potential impact his research has. In spite of this, it will hopefully generate constructive dialogue on this hot-button issue.