“Tell the truth,” a frustrated Will Smith repeats in Concussion. If only the makers of the film followed that sound advice.
The motion picture indicates that Bennet Omalu discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), something the flesh-and-blood doctor doubles down on in a recent CNN op-ed. But a researcher first discovered the condition in boxers in the 1920s. “Name it,” a colleague implores Omalu in the movie. “Give this a name.” But it already had a name. The medical literature, as the Associated Press pointed out this week, contains the phrase “chronic traumatic encephalopathy” in articles published more than a half-century ago. Bennet Omalu surely first discovered the disease in a football player. But Hollywood, and the real-life Dr. Omalu, awards him a grander scientific achievement than what honesty compels us to grant him. Tell the truth.
One gleans the impression through a scene in a near-vacant lot that Justin Strzelczyk and Mike Webster commiserated over their neurological troubles as old friends. But the Steelers linemen never played together. There’s no evidence that they held such a dramatic meeting of the addled minds. No record exists of Dave Duerson and Andre Waters, two defensive backs who later killed themselves, partaking in a violent argument outside of NFL headquarters. Duerson never told Omalu to “go back to Africa” and no Steelers fanatic working in the Allegheny County coroner’s office ever hounded him to stop his work. But it’s Hollywood, and presumably the viewers who can grasp that Luke Wilson isn’t Roger Goodell understand what dramatic license means. But that license goes beyond expected composite characters and trivial fibs such as showing the teetotaler Cyril Wecht drinking at a bar. Tell the truth.
The filmmakers leave knowledgeable filmgoers with the sense that even the writers, producers, and director understood the script as fudging the facts. They create impressions rather than assert truths. Why else would they insert scenes of mysterious cars lurking outside of the Omalu home or an ominous car chasing the doctor’s wife without ever resolving who sat behind the wheel? The latter scene results in a miscarriage for Mrs. Omalu. “This is my fault,” Will Smith maintains. “They destroyed us.” The NFL that profited off brain trauma also murdered a baby, the portrayal leads viewers to believe. Tell the truth.
When the filmmakers appear on the verge of telling a figurative truth, they tell a literal lie. The Nigerian immigrant informs his African love interest that in America you must become the “best version of you.” He advises, “If you don’t know what that is you pick something and fake it.” He explains that he modeled himself on “an older, bald-headed white man”—his boss at the Allegheny County coroner’s office, Cyril Wecht. This rings true, and Albert Brooks shines in his portrayal of the not-camera-shy coroner. The movie then depicts a conspiracy between the two presumably most powerful three-letter outfits in America—the FBI and the NFL—to silence Omalu by indicting his mentor Wecht. A stunned Omalu tells the agents, “You are attacking him to get to me.” But this, like Wecht’s Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories, ranks as revisionist history that finds no backing in any evidence then or now. Wecht’s legal troubles, which he ultimately overcame, did not in any way involve his understudy irritating the NFL. Tell the truth.
Even when telling the truth served to make a more interesting movie, Hollywood opted for falsehoods. The real Bennet Omalu, a man described in League of Denial as favoring $6,000 cufflinks and speaking of himself in the third person, lends himself nicely not merely to the silver-screen but to a cartoon. But Will Smith plays him as a sober, serious doctor in a lab coat rather than a flashy and flamboyant capitalist wearing Italian suits. It’s like casting Morgan Freeman in full-on voice-of-God mode to play P.T. Barnum. What gives Omalu more credibility in the fictional retelling actually detracts from the movie. A colorful, natural performer preexisted the production; a staid saint emerges from it. Tell the truth.
Inherent within the plot lies an irreconcilable contradiction. In Concussion, the NFL torments Bennet Omalu and attempts to suppress his research. In real life, the NFL, or at least a scholarly publication repeatedly lambasted as the “The Official Medical Journal of the National Football League,” ran Omalu’s initial study that announced finding CTE in the brain of a deceased player (Mike Webster). One of the fictional Omalu’s high points involves the receipt of that published article. Concussion never notes that Neurosurgery’s editor served as a medical consultant to the New York Giants’ and various NFL committees on head trauma or the journal’s loose association with the league. NFL hacks can’t suppress his research and publish it, after all. Tell the truth.
The film aims for journalism and entertainment. It fails at both. Our amusement suffers by depicting a real-life, one-of-a-kind, technicolorful character as a stuffy, so-serious saint. Our understanding suffers from Concussion repeatedly presenting events that never happened as though they did. Jeanne Marie Laskas, the writer of the GQ article on which the filmmakers based the film, conceded to me at a prescreening that numerous scenes in the movie did not happen but maintained that “the beats of the story are accurate.” In fictionalizing current events, the film falls into a category rarely seen in literature save for the creative-nonfiction novels of the New Journalism but common enough on the silver screen. It evokes less football than another Sunday pastime, sermonizing. Concussion ranks as propaganda, and like all such preachy, Manichean cinema it bores. Tell the truth.
Laskas used the movie to parlay her article into a book, and Omalu capitalized to launch a foundation with Ridley Scott’s backing. No word yet on when the new Sony Pictures Park and Smurfs Zone starts selling tickets for Concussion the Ride. But if there’s a buck for the taking for saying that the NFL created AIDS in its evil laboratory above Park Avenue or gives out apples on Halloween or wants to ban yoga pants or hates recess then prepare for Concussion II, in 3-D, in which Bennet Omalu—a character somewhat more believable than Kylo Ren—evades Roger Goodell in a McQueenian car chase to discover gravity, electricity, and the atom. Just prepare for the celluloid storytellers to not tell the truth.
Daniel J. Flynn, the author of The War on Football: Saving America’s Game, edits Breitbart Sports.