Film Review: Concussion” (2015)

Concussion_posterThis is the second film demonstrating a disturbing trend previously observed in “American Sniper” (2014). The enhancement of an hour’s worth of facts to generate a two-hour movie. It’s disturbing because there are pretty glaring inaccuracies and embellishments, not identified as such, specifically created for dramatic effect. Like “American Sniper”, this is not a documentary; it’s a docudrama, with numerous liberties taken to make it more appealing to the box office, an understanding rigorously constructed by the film producers long before any film is made.

The bare bones story of Dr. Bennett Omalu, his “discovery” of chronic pathological brain changes in long-term football players at autopsy and his interaction with the National Football League (NFL) is all probably true and well documented as far as it goes. But the entire story would take less than an hour to tell and the dramatic value would not be sell-able to millions of fans, especially Pittsburgh Steeler fans unlikely to warm up to being lectured to about the game.

So embellishments of the facts of the case were dreamed up by producers to include characters that either didn’t exist (No record of Dr. Danny Sullivan’s abuse of Bennett) or the only reason for their inclusion is to appeal to the melodrama- a love interest that has nothing to do with the film’s theme. The FBI did raid Dr. Cyril Wecht’s office, but three months before Omalu published his research. Omalu did show up in court as a witness for Dr. Wecht’s prosecution and even made a bid for Wecht’s job (1). The scene of Omalu’s wife “followed” by a malevolent stalker, possibly leading to her miscarriage is said to be a figment of a producer’s imagination to stoke the dramatic intent of the story.

The family of former NFL player Dave Duerson considers the showing of a standoff between Duerson and Andre Waters, a former player whose application for benefits was denied by a retiree board (that included Duerson) to be fabricated (2). Waters committed suicide  at age 44, suggesting that Waters’ death could have been prevented if Duerson had been more compassionate with a fellow player. Dr. Joe Maroon’s portrait is said by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to be ill-considered. “Once Dr. Maroon understood what we were dealing with, he really brought it to the NFL” (3)

These embellished facts have been spun into melodrama wherein this devastating brain pathology seems to reliably and predictably destroy players minds, eventually leading to higher than average suicide rates. But this isn’t exactly true if you look at the rest of the literature. There is very little if any convincing evidence to suggest footballers, as a group, suffer a higher suicide rate than the rest of the population (4). Other cites suggest that football players live longer than average, even as their traumatic risk factors are increased (5,6), and are not statistically subject to an epidemic of suicide (7,8).

The pathologic basis for “Chronic traumatic encephalopathy has been around for decades. It’s not a new term,” said William Stewart, a neuropathologist at Queen Elizabeth University Hospital in Glasgow. Dr. Omalu neither discovered nor named the disease. “The only thing I would say that Bennet has done is that he identified it in an American footballer (9).”

None of the above is to suggest that repeated blows to the head don’t cause pathologic brain injury over time. This has never been disputed and all one has to do is observe Mohammed Ali to see the vivid results of it (10). And of course, a huge corporation (the NFL) making billions of dollars off an entertainment industry (Football) is not likely to embrace anything that threatens the money flow. The reaction to this research should never be dismissed, but this story embellishes the real “big picture” by the multi-billion dollar film industry for the same reason the NFL protects its multi-billion industry. It follows the money.

This film would have been a moderately interesting one-hour long documentary on PBS. But top-draw actors like Will Smith don’t do documentaries. The producers and director understood that such a documentary would be worthless at the box office so they simply used creative license create dramatic impressions for two hours, and they don’t advise the audience that the film is heavily influenced by that dramatic license. In response to critical reviews, the producers state: “The movie is emotionally and spiritually accurate all the way through”. This steaming line of bullshit allows many walk away thinking they’ve seen an authentic documentary.

Otherwise, the actors did a good job, particularly underrated actor David Morse.

It was an interesting drama but I must downgrade this film as it is intentionally disingenuous bordering on deceitful, and I cannot let that stand in an honest review.

It gets two of five extreme close-ups of Will Smiths mouth.




















Published by gonzo66

I am a neurosurgical critical care physician and full professor at a major Eastern University Medical Center.

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