“Concussion”: A Nickell-odeon Review

December 29, 2015

Although deeply sympathetic to the plight of football players suffering head injuries, I did not feel the need to see a movie on the subject which, after all, hardly seemed sufficiently relevant to skepticism or humanism to warrant my writing a review.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. My wife Diana was determined to see Concussion, so I happily treated us to breakfast and a movie. (Isn’t that how everyone does it?) I was not prepared for the result, but I was delighted (despite the “I told you so” from the seat next to me.)

I was captivated in the opening minutes by actor Will Smith’s stunning transformation into the persona of a Nigerian-born pathologist, Bennett Omalu. Soon, one is caught up in the mystery of how NFL star Mike “Iron Mike” Webster (former Steelers center and Pro Football Hall of Famer) could have become such a basket case of dementia and depression, yet have (at autopsy) a brain that challenged science for an explanation.

In retrospect, the answer seems a no-brainer. But as Sherlock Holmes pointed out (in The Adventure of the Dancing Men), everything is obvious after it has been explained. So we follow Dr. Omalu as he not only refuses to sign off on effect when actual cause is so elusive, but he also personally funds the laboratory tests that lead to the solution. This is the recognition of a new disease called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) which results from repeated head trauma.

But the story is just beginning, as Concussion soon reveals how the Big Business and fans of an American craze respond to a medical interloper who would cost them money (and fun). It is reminiscent of earlier instances of science denial—for example, the refusals by tobacco and oil companies to admit that respectively, cigarette smoking causes cancer and carbon emissions produce global warming. The response to Dr. Omalu is denial on steroids. There are even calls for him to “admit” he faked his results.

He did not, of course, but you’ll see that when (if you take my recommendation) you watch Concussion. It’s an inspiring movie, a lesson in science versus a denial movement, and a very good chance for Will Smith to at least be nominated for Best Actor.

Rating: Four wooden nickels (out of four).

Four Nickels