Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 4 min.
Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 2; Language 2; Sex /Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute.
Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.
Ha! You who hide a plan too deep for the Lord, whose deeds are in the dark, and who say, “Who sees us? Who knows us?”
Speaking in a Nigerian accent Will Smith plays Nigerian-American immigrant Dr. Bennet Omalu, a neuropathologist working in Pittsburgh in the Allegheny County’s coroner’s office in 2002. Loaded with advanced medical degrees, his work habit of talking to the dead and using scalpels only once out of respect for the deceased irritates his superior. He also listens to the music of Teddy Pendergrass while cutting the corpse open.
Dr. Omalu (he corrects anyone who fails to use his title) is a thorough practitioner, so when he is assigned to examine the body of former Steeler player Mike Webster (David Morse), he insists on performing an autopsy over the objections of the fussy sco-worker. Puzzled as to why a once healthy athlete should decline so quickly and die of coronary arrest, he decides further tests are needed. As he says to the skeptical co-worker, “I know how he died, but I don’t know why he died.”
Webster, a popular center for the Steelers, had been suffering memory loss and was acting strange and confused, using Supper Glue on his rotting teeth. Homeless, he had been living in his truck, used drugs and, to relieve his back pain, had been shocking himself with a taser. The desperate man had begged for help from his doctor before dying.
Dr. Omalu decides to pay for a series of brain scans with his own money when his co-worker objects to the costs. The slices come back, and when he examines them in his microscope he is astonished at what he sees. Webster’s brain tissues look like those of a man suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. If this is true for this one player, then it must be the case for other veteran players as well, so many of whom have died far “before there time.” Concluding that football is more dangerous than recognized, he publishes his results in a medical journal. He names the disorder CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy. (I have read that this is one of several errors in the film, another doctor many years earlier actually coming up with the name.) Dr. Omalu had naively thought that his research would be accepted, even welcomed. Instead, the NFL seeks to discredit the findings by attacking him, labeling him an unknown quack.
There follows another David-vs-Goliath tale (think Erin Brokovich and The Insider), the doctor, like the prophets of old, fighting against overwhelming odds, both for the truth of his findings and the sake of his professional reputation. Along the way he receives great help from two other doctors, Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks) and Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), the first a very good ally in that he is the County Coroner and thus his ultimate boss, and the second an insider in that he was for several years the team doctor for the Steelers.
There is a third ally also, powerful not in any professional sense, but in a personal way. She is Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), also an African immigrant whom his church asks him to take into his extra room until she is in a position to afford her own place. As the two slowly fall in love she is able to exert a strong influence on him, especially during a period when he is so despairing that he wants to throw in the towel. Also a Christian, with a strong sense of right and wrong, she keeps him centered and aware of the importance of his task.
Those critics who have criticized the romantic subplot as distracting to the effort to get the NFL to face up to the problem of concussions fail to see her importance to the development of the story. For people of faith, another aspect dismissed by some critics, but important, is the faith of the two. They attend church and pray before meals. His strong faith, bolstered by the one who is now his wife, sustains him during the dark period when it looks his cause is hopeless. Their faith is not thrust upon us, as a faith-based film probably would have done, but is included as a part of the setting, along with the imposing Pittsburgh skyline.
In a way you could say that this is a story of competing faiths. A number of writers have observed that football is not just an updated version of the gladiatorial games, but also a religion with its expensive stadiums serving as cathedrals, the Super Bowl as a combined Christmas and Easter, and game day as its day of worship. There are even “holy cards” collected and traded avidly by young and old fans. Football has its Communion of Saints consisting of the members of the Football Hall of Fame, into which on an annual basis (“All Saints Day”?) new worthies are inducted. At one point Dr. Wecht tells his friend, “The NFL owns a day of the week. The same day the Church used to own. Now it’s theirs.”
Not only does the NFL refuse to give Dr. Omalu a hearing, but also its leaders apparently do all they can to intimidate him. There is a threatening phone call in the night. While driving home, Prema is filled with fear when a car stays close behind her, making every turn that she does. The FBI investigates her husband, one of the agents addressing him in a threatening way. Is the NFL behind all of this? All this creates a sense of foreboding menace. At this point the script is deficient, each of these incidents dropped into the story with no explanations or follow up. We wonder how much of this is Hollywood, and how much is fact.
We do know from the hackers of the Sony studio emails that the script’s original attack on the NFL was toned down. And yet the film still packs quite a punch, especially in the short scenes in which we see players like Justin Strzelczyk (Matthew Willig) and Dave Duerson (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), their after-football lives destroyed by CTE. It is pitiful to watch such tough players on the field succumbing to the effect of their thousands of hits years during their careers.
The NFL finally loses the battle against Dr. Omalu, but thus far is winning the war. The doctor has said that no child should be allowed to play football before the age of 18, but this is unlikely to happen. This story unfolds in the manner of the fight against Big Tobacco, but the NFL is far more powerful. I suspect that the Super Bowl Game will still be watched by the millions of fans with no thought of the effect of those jarring impacts endured by their favorite players. They love the excitement of burly bodies colliding and often making seemingly impossible catches up and down the field. Those who praise the game for its grace are well supported by the endless playbacks in slow motion.
And so those who care about this issue will have to be vigilant, questioning the League’s assertion that they are doing everything possible to insure the safety of players. You can bet that the NFL officials hoped that this Will Smith film would be buried by the new Star Wars and that those not wanting to travel to a galaxy far, far away would want something more cheery than a “true story” about a pathologist’s fight to get the truth out about football injuries. The film’s performance at the box office was just fair, bringing in about $10.5 million on its first weekend. That is a pittance compared to what the Star Wars film raked in, but at least some of the public chose to see it during the Christmas weekend. It is such an important film that I hope it will do even better in days ahead, especially as the controversy surrounding it continues. Peter Landesman’s film has its flaws, factual and artistically, but it is still a “must see” film for those who care about our society and its obsession with violence, even in its sports.
This film with a set of discussion questions will be in the Jan. 2016 issue of VP, available for purchase on this site.