‘A dangerous gift’: ‘Concussion’ and the NFL

“Concussion” – the new movie about football and head trauma – is a beautiful film beautifully rendered. That may be an odd choice of words for a story about two of the sometimes uglier games men play – power and violence – but then, football, like humanity, is a multifaceted subject, at once mindless and Shakespearean, as one character notes.

This football tale is told from the viewpoint of an outsider who longs to be an insider, a Nigerian immigrant who has grown up thinking of America as God’s country. Armed with a slew of degrees from Nigeria, New York and London, Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) is a proud, accomplished but obscure forensics pathologist working for Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), the chief medical examiner in Allegheny County, Pa., in 2002 when he is given what he describes as “a dangerous gift” – a gift for knowing.

That is, Omalu is the pathologist on duty when Mike Webster’s body is brought in. “Iron Mike” (a superb, unrecognizable David Morse) was the center on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ glory teams of the 1970s. But by the time he died on Sept. 24 of 2002, he was a figure of ridicule – Super Glue-ing the teeth he pulled out, Taser-ing his insomniac self to sleep. He was like the Greek hero Ajax, a man of more brawn than brains who, having lost out to the wily Odysseus for possession of the dead Achilles’ armor, went mad with humiliation and killed himself.

Webster died of a heart attack but he might as well have committed suicide. In examining his body, Omalu asks himself a perhaps not-so-simple question: Why would a 50-year-old man exhibit an array of mental problems that do not present themselves on a CT scan? After extensive testing, Omalu discovers the presence of tau proteins – which also appear in Alzheimer’s – that calcify the brain, hardening the mind from the inside out. He calls his discovery CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, and publishes his findings with Wecht and others.

To say that the NFL and many of its fans are less than pleased is the understatement of five lifetimes. Football, Wecht tells the naïve immigrant, has its own day, Sunday, which used to belong to the Church. Omalu is harassed and shut out from the NFL’s subsequent investigation. But truth will out, and as more former players kill themselves or die other violent deaths, more are found to be suffering from CTE.

“Concussion” has been criticized for everything from Smith’s Nigerian accent to writer-director Peter Landesman playing fast and loose with the truth. But if you’ve seen the complementary PBS “Frontline” documentary, “League of Denial,” then you realize that Smith and Landesman have fashioned a narrative of psychological truth in which passion and reason intersect with a quiet intensity. It culminates with a speech by Omalu before the NFL Players Association that is worth quoting at length.

“In dying,” Omalu says of his CTE “patients,” “they speak for the living, and I speak for them. That is what I do. Forgive them. Forgive yourselves. And be at peace.”

It is a moment not of capitulation but of recognition of the mind – and life’s – terrible, wondrous complexity.