by Irvin Muchnick
How much more convenient it would be for my curmudgeonly tendencies if Concussion, Peter Landesmans new movie starring Will Smith as Bennet Omalu, were simply bad. In reality, its a heck of a lot better than I expected. Film is a powerful medium. Those less knowledgeable about this ones narcissistic and mangled piece of behind-the-scenes sports history will walk away with an improved appreciation of bedrock truths: the game of tackle football kills the brain, and nothing can be done about that.
The nothing can be done about that part continues to be fudged by Concussion, and against that whiff of aftermath feel-good, along with Omalus relentless and self-curated hype, I must continue to blast away. So: Hype debunking on top; movie review below.
In promotional interviews, Omalu has exposed not only the self-involvement of a newly made American mover and shaker; not only an ever-present mysticism, sometimes charming and sometimes off-putting; but also a heavy dose of bizarro self-pity. These factors combine to make it hard for me to decide whether he is a flawed messenger of the century-plus narrative of football traumatic brain injury evidence and cover-up of same — or an intellectual train wreck. Concussion contains a valuable public health message, but its essential storyline, the contrived naming of a long-established disease, makes it closer to the germ of a message than the real thing.
Omalu needs to shed, and fast, his corrupt connections and incoherent messaging. Otherwise, the opportunity of his new platform will be irretrievably lost.
I define the goal line starkly and unapologetically: the end of tackle football for millions of pee-wees, and the end of our public schools hundreds of millions upon hundreds of millions of dollars of subsidies of tackle football by unpaid teenagers, all for community divertissement and a perversion of the concept of physical education.
Moving forward, let the fanatics who want to send their children off to slaughter do so in private clubs, and foot the bill themselves. We no longer have high school boxing teams. Weve never had filtered cigarette smoking teams.
And about that filtered cigarette analogy: We dont need further research on this question, either — not even by the movie heros Hollywood crony-loaded Bennet Omalu Foundation at the University of Pittsburgh. Pitt just so happens to be the undisputed world heavyweight champion of historical scientific denial of traumatic brain injury in the National Football League and at all levels of the sport.
A generation of tests using human youngsters as guinea pigs inside hit-sensor helmets, and of longitudinal studies of the ensuing damage, is as scientifically unethical as it is morally reprehensible. Why not stick that line, Will Smith, into your fake closing speech in Concussion?
Omalus ungracious, unprofessional, f-bomb-laced Q&A with Time was his weirdest promo yet. At the moment of his victory lap for recognition of his key role in linking boxings long-IDd chronic traumatic encephalopathy condition to football players, he decided that what we needed was a race-baiting rant about his supposed ongoing outsider status. Exuding all the modesty of Donald Trump, this celebrated forensic pathologist and major medical school professor carries on like hes the most disenfranchised person on earth.
Yeah, lets make sure we understand that this is all about Omalu, with a registered trademark, and his cinematic hogging of credit for contemporary-era work also contributed to by Chris Nowinski, Dr. Ann McKee, Dr. Robert Cantu, and others. That the problem might actually be the kids of football future, rather than the personal glory of any of these worthies, is at best an afterthought.
In Time, Omalu also bloviates that either 90 or 100 percent of National Football League players — the elitist of the elite, the highest paid among the almost universally otherwise unpaid — have CTE. (Omalu uses both numbers in different parts of the interview.) He hasnt come remotely close to establishing such an assertion, and I dont think even very many of the most zealous of the brain damage awareness crowd believe it. In any event, and most importantly, the incidence of CTE itself among NFLers is nowhere near the public health bottom line with respect to the football systems collective orthopedic, internal organ, and brain toll, for a substantial segment of our male population, beginning as young as age five.
[O]nly Hollywood extended their hand, Omalu whines. This should come as news to Jeanne Marie Laskas, the writer whose 2009 article about him in GQ magazine was the root intellectual property of the movie, and to the many other journalists who wrote extensively about how the NFL and its captive doctors for a time blocked his publication in the most prestigious scientific research journals.
All Im asking now is that people should leave me alone, the Wizard of Omalu concludes to Time.
Well, let me assure Dr. Omalu that there is no chance of that — not so long as Concussion and its subjects legacy remains the Bennet Omalu Foundation. The groups trustees include Omalu pal, opportunist, and youth football truther Julian No Reported Deaths Bailes. That is like George Wallace as director of the LBJ Library. Like David Irving as historian-in-residence at the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Like many who have had personal interactions with Omalu, I nodded with familiarity at Concussions opening scene, in which he recites his eight postgraduate degrees, including an MBA, while testifying as an expert witness at a murder trial. The charismatic Smith, who wouldnt know an acting nuance for heroism if it slapped the earhole of the Kevlar helmet protecting the skull surrounding his sloshing brain, plays braggadocio as the naivete of genius. Some of the rest of us have observed that Omalus obsession with credentials is also a sign of insecurity.
Another sign in this based on a true story amalgam is the subplot involving Omalus boss in Pittsburgh, coroner Cyril Wecht, played by Albert Brooks. The George W. Bush Justice Departments politically motivated prosecution of Wecht had nothing to do with any NFL campaign to suppress Omalus findings. I repeat: nothing, either chronologically or in content. The Wecht trial is a subject I know a bit about, since his ultimate acquittal was skillfully managed by my old sparring partner Jerry McDevitt, who is also chief legal mouthpiece for WWE.
Evidently, director-writer Landesmans script-balancing or demographic needs called for the creation out of whole cloth of the character of an older white male mentor for Omalu, whose persecution paralleled his own. The movies real-life protagonist accepted this element of b.s. as part of the price of admission for his own overall legitimization.
By far the most repulsive play-action fake of Concussion, however, is Alec Baldwin as Julian Bailes. He was the former Pittsburgh Steelers team doctor who partnered with Omalu at the West Virginia University Brain Injury Research Institute after they had a turf dispute with Chris Nowinskis Boston group. (The movie simply writes Nowinski et al. out of the story, just as shamelessly as Nowinski buddy Alan Schwarz of the New York Times had once blacked Omalu out of coverage.)
If Bailes, now lying through his teeth about the safety of Pop Warner Football, is a courageous figure to whom attention must be paid, then Im the reincarnation of Elroy Crazy Legs Hirsch.
As many have noted, there was the usual conflation and rearranging of the timeline of the deaths of NFL players, most notably Dave Duerson, and their relation to Congressional hearings and league public relations measures. I count such lapses among the non-venal sins of Hollywoodization. Landesmans dialogue was pedestrian, but the story arc was decent, if full of predictable fluff and nonsense. Some football people disagree with me that Landesmans particular mix of talking heads and real collision footage was well judged. My 20-year-old movie theater companion daughter, a non-fan, remarked on some flat pacing decisions in the course of a 122-minute feature.
For better or worse, all that is over and done. Concussion, the work of art, has been released. It will be a box office success, or not. It will earn Will Smith an Oscar nomination, or not.
I dont give a rats ass. What I care about is whether Bennet Omalu, the newly minted public figure, will start speaking with unforked tongue regarding the headline of his recent Times op-ed: Dont Let Kids Play Football.
So far, with his ersatz foundation at Pitt, co-guided by the odious quack Bailes, Omalu is falling down on that job.
OUR SERIES ON THE CONCUSSION MOVIE