Monday February 29 2016

The highs and lows of the Concussion

By Carol Beyanga

I watched the movie Concussion a few weeks ago. I had not heard of it but my movie guy, Emma, insisted on adding it among a number of movies I had asked him to get me. So I sat down to watch having not heard anything about it.
It started off really interestingly – with Will Smith (acting as Dr Bennet Omalu) in a court room, speaking with a Nigerian accent, talking to lawyers who seemed to think lowly of him.
They were looking at him with veiled contempt until he started reeling off the number of degrees – Masters and PhDs – he had acquired. The looks on their faces changed immediately and the jury seemed to sit up in their chairs and listen carefully.

He spoke with an almost goofy smile on his face, as he spoke of his achievements, then got into the merits and demerits of the case before them and sliced up every assumption made, ending on an emphatic note, telling the court room why the man in the dock was not guilty, a now serious look on his face as if to say – “beat that!” It was such an exhilarating three or so minutes, I stopped and rewound the movie to watch that bit again. Satisfied, I curled up in the chair ready to be engrossed by the movie.
Unfortunately that was the only part that excited me.

First, a few disclaimers. I LOVE Will Smith’s acting. He is downright funny, and not in a gross or perverse manner. His humour is genuine; you feel like he is the funny guy you meet at a corporate function who will keep you entertained, without seeking to hog the limelight. Although he seems to do better in comedies, Smith can do well in dramas, if the right role is selected.
I certainly thought he did a good job in Enemy of the State. It had some humour yes, but lots of good drama.

But back to Concussion. This is a movie based on real-life events. The long and short of it is that Dr. Bennet Omalu a forensic pathologist performs an autopsy on a once famous American football player, Mike Webster. Omalu discovers that Webster suffered severe brain damage, because of repetitive knocks to the head during his 16 years playing football.
Over the next few years, Omalu goes on to discover other players who have died and had similar symptoms as Webster’s. He publishes his findings and wants to do something about it. It is then that he discovers the National Football League (NFL) is not willing to talk about the issue and will do anything they can to shut him up.

Really nice story, but the acting and plot did not quite live up to what it could have been.
First of all, casting Will Smith as Dr Omalu was probably not a good idea. His name might have brought some pizzazz to the movie, and he does manage a fairly good Nigerian accent (if there is actually such a thing) most of the time.
But as I watched, I just kept seeing Will Smith and not a good brilliant Nigerian doctor trying to find his way in America and working on a serious case.

He did not really immerse himself into the character. I kept asking myself, “What in the world stopped Ridley Scott, the producer, from casting Chiwetel Ejiofor as Dr Omalu?” Chiwetel is Nigerian, has the accent and is a good actor. We saw that in 12 Years a Slave and especially Half of a Yellow Sun. With some makeup and shaving of his hair, he would have done the part well. Why was he not chosen?
Then there is the reason the movie was done, the fact that football players are dying because of lots of hits to the head.
Once Dr Omalu finds out there is a brain problem, you are eager to find out what exactly it is, which part of the brain is affected, how and why.

But it seems the director wanted to focus more on the fight between the good doctor and the NFL. As such, the scenes that show Omalu making the discovery of the disease are too fast, almost too complicated, too many things merged into one, a mixture of football games on the TV, lots of notepads and microscopic material, and a lot of Dr Omalu pacing up and down a room.
When that part is done, you still have no idea how exactly chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the disease that affects the players, comes about and how it eventually leads to their death.
Because I was interested in finding that out, I found myself doing a lot of reading on it. A good movie, I think, should have answered some of those questions.

Concussion is supposed to be a movie in the league of The Insider, Erin Brokovich and Amazing Grace. It is based on a well written article (Game Brain, by Jeanne Marie Laskas.) and aims to bring to light a wrong that many are not willing to discuss.
The casting and the plot though do not do it justice, which is a sad thing because this movie should have been bigger than it is right now.