Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster earned four Super Bowl rings anchoring one of the most indomitable offensive lines in NFL history. In 2002, he died in his pickup truck, divorced, hopeless and homeless, his legs covered with self-inflicted Taser wounds, his teeth affixed with superglue, his mind a mush of pain and voices.
The official cause of death? Cardiac arrest.
But for Nigerian-born pathologist and Allegheny County coroner Dr. Bennet Omalu, the "official" answer isn't good enough. "Cardiac arrest may be how he died," he tells a peer in the morgue, "but not why."
Bennet approaches his work with something bordering on reverence for the deceased upon whom he works. To each he speaks gently before beginning his investigative work. "Mike, people are saying bad things about you," he informs the corpse. "I can tell something is wrong. … I need you to help tell the world what happened to you."
Something was wrong with Mike. But exactly what remains unclear. His CT scan is normal. His brain looks just fine. "This brain should be a mess," Bennet tells a nurse. "But it looks completely normal."
It's not until Bennet examines slices of Webster's brain tissue under the microscope that he formulates a hypothesis: The repeated head trauma most football players experience does indeed take a terrible toll on their brains, even when that trauma doesn't produce immediate evidence.
In a pathology-focused plot that feels ripped from an episode of CSI, Bennet discovers that with each impact the brain releases a protein around the injured area to heal it. But there's the catch: Repeated injuries result in a build-up of that protein big enough to ultimately degrade the brain instead of heal it. The result is pain, double vision, phantom voices, depression, anger and aggression.
Encouraged by his wife, Prema, and compelled by his desire to know the truth about what's happening with football players' brains, Bennet begins to literally dig deeper—grimly aided by more Steelers dying before their time. Bennet's joined in his quest by his boss, Dr. Cyril Wecht, and by former Steelers team physician, Dr. Julian Bailes.
But not everyone's as eager to know the truth as Dr. Omalu is—especially those in the NFL head office (League commissioner Roger Goodell chief among them) whose multibillion-dollar organization depends upon the very brain-damaging hits that may be killing its players.
Bennet Omalu is a dogged doctor who's committed to discovering the truth. It's a goal he pursues at great cost to himself. He eventually loses his job and has to pay out of his own pocket for many of the tests he performs. Omalu also bravely confronts the NFL with his findings. (He names the condition chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E.)
Bennet's wife is a stalwart supporter of his quest. And while former Steelers physician Dr. Julian Bailes is a reluctant crusader (partly, it's implied, due to the guilt he feels for having "aided and abetted" players' injuries for so many years), he concludes, "I don't want to see any more of these men vanish in the back of a pickup truck." So he's willing to team with Dr. Omalu, even though he knows better than anyone how fiercely the NFL's resistance will be and how the organization will seek to minimize, manipulate and smear the doctors' findings.
As mentioned, the sanctity of human life is highlighted by the way Bennet treats the bodies he works on, honoring the lives the men lived and seeking to fully understand the deaths they died.
Bennet is strongly motivated by his Christian faith. And Prema says her husband being the coroner who worked on Mike Webster was no coincidence, but a part of God's providential plan. We see Bennet and Prema praying; she wears a cross and we see a cross in their home; they attend church together; he has a crucifix hanging from his car's rearview mirror (which he touches before going in to work one morning). Bennet hates the idea that some people consider him an "African voodoo doctor."
Bennet says, "As a boy growing up in Nigeria, heaven was [up high] and America was [just below it]. America was the place where God sent all of His favorite people. They could be and do anything. Americans were the manifestation of what God wanted all of us to be." Prema eventually shares a hard part of her story, telling her husband that she was sexually assaulted when she arrived in America. "That man almost broke me," she says. "I wanted to give up and go back. But I know God. I decided to trust His wisdom and I stayed."
Bennet talks about the ways in which God created animals and humans differently. Dr. Bailes says, with a touch of chagrin, "The NFL owns a day of the week—the same day the church used to own." Similarly, someone says that in the South, God is No. 1, and football is No. 2. Another person sarcastically says the NFL is "immune from acts of God." There's talk of redemption and seeking to "cleanse sin."
Prema lives platonically as a guest in Bennet's house for a while before they fall in love and marry. They go dancing, and Bennet asks her permission for a kiss. Then he gently pulls her toward his room (suggesting that the kiss turns into something more). Bennet later proposes, and it's implied that they eventually get married.
As mentioned, Prema alludes to having been raped. During an autopsy, the camera briefly shows the underside of a deceased woman's breast.
Multiple scenes depict Bennet working on corpses. Shots show scalpels beginning to cut through flesh. One scene includes a brain being weighed on a scale. After an autopsy, we see bloody instruments.
Mike Webster Tases his bare leg and convulses. Scars on his leg suggest that he's done this many times. Real-world dash-cam footage shows Mike's truck going the wrong way on a freeway, where he hits an oncoming vehicle at (we're told) 90 mph, causing a huge explosion. Another player threatens to strangle his wife to death, then knocks down paintings and furniture. We watch a football player load a gun and lie down on his bed. (We then hear that he died of a self-inflicted gunshot to the chest.) There's another similar story of suicide told while the closing credits roll. Dr. Omalu is an expert witness in a murder trial where we see photographs of an accused murderer's bloody hands.
We see many montages of the hard hits pro football players routinely endure. In a moment of rage, frustration and disappointment, Bennet takes a baseball bat to the wall of his new house.
Crude or Profane Language
One f-word and two uses of the euphemism "freaking." Four s-words. We hear one to three uses each of "h---," "a--," "a--hole," "b--tard" and "b--ch." Someone calls Bennet on the phone and accuses him of trying to "p---ify" and "vaginize" the country by getting rid of football. There's a crude comment about "balls." God's name is abused 10 or more times, at least four times paired with "d--n." Jesus' name is misused once.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Characters drink socially (mostly wine) at meals. Football fans drink beer at a bar. Mike Webster puts a chemical on a rag and inhales it. We hear a list of the prescription drugs he's taking: Ritalin, Dexedrine, Prozac and (he adds jokingly) superglue. When he gets agitated, Webster is given an injection of Haldol. Dr. Bailes further lists the many prescription painkillers and antidepressants he prescribed to players, and it's suggested that drug abuse is one outcome of C.T.E. A young woman is said to have died of a drug overdose.
Other Negative Elements
NFL honchos are depicted as almost mob-like thugs: Dr. Wecht is indicted on trumped-up FBI charges of corruption, Bennet receives death threats and loses his job, his wife suffers a miscarriage after the stress of being followed by a suspicious-looking car.
"Playing football killed Mike Webster," Dr. Bennet Omalu argues in Concussion. His evidence? Omalu says that impacts carrying a g-force of 60 can cause a concussion. Players smashing into each other head-to-head can cause an impact of up to 100 Gs. The number of blows to the head he estimates Mike Webster sustained during his entire playing career, from childhood through the end of his 17 years in the NFL: 70,000.
The tragic result: the release of "killer proteins" that were "strangling his mind from the inside out," Dr. Omalu explains.
Thus, Concussion delivers a blow of its own to moviegoers, especially those who love football: America's most beloved sport is killing some of those who play it. It may not kill its gladiatorial combatants as quickly as their forerunners in Rome's Colosseum two millennia ago. But the brutality we now take so much pleasure in may ultimately yield the same result for many of them.
This is a message movie, certainly, wearing its cautionary point of view on its toe tag. And it may be an important one, too, a bit of cinema that moves our national discussion about our favorite violent sport across the 50-yard line.
That won't be a comfortable thing for the NFL or its legion of rabid fans. It certainly wasn't a comfortable process for Dr. Bennet Omalu.
It's not always a comfortable movie to sit through, either. Scattered profanities (including an f-word, some s-words and abuses of God's name) can make your head spin, too, along with the uncommented-on implication of premarital sex and, of course, the CSI-style morgue scenes.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu; Alec Baldwin as Dr. Julian Bailes; Albert Brooks as Dr. Cyril Wecht; Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Prema Mutiso; David Morse as Mike Webster; Luke Wilson as Roger Goodell
Peter Landesman ( Parkland)
December 25, 2015
March 29, 2016