Written and directed by Peter Landesman (from an article by Jeanne-Marie Laskas)
Starring Will Smith, Alec Bladwin, Eddie Marsan, Albert Brooks, Gugu Mabatha-Raw, David Morse, Luke Wilson
123’; Usa 2015
Performing an autopsy on a former professional footbal player who died insane and homeless, the Nigerian neuropathologist Bennet Omalu establishes a connection between the many concussions suffered during the athlete’s career and a degenerative brain disease. Over time he realizes that this is happening to many of his colleagues, but when he presents his findings in a scientific journal the powerful NFL attempts to silence him by any means …
Bennet Omalu’s story is yet another iteration of the improbable victory of a David against a Goliath emodied by corporations: in this case an immigrant Nigerian doctor, armed only with his honesty and his faith (Omalu is a devout Christian and his faith is clearly not just a sunday accessory in his life but a real inspiration to his action) and one of America’s most powerful sport and entertainment organizations. As Omalu’s wise boss well emphasizes, the NFL sells a product that more than twenty million of Americans are happy to “consume” every Sunday, as in a sense football has replaced church worship as a collective ritual.
As in Spotlight, however, the intervention of an outsider becomes essential to undermine a well oiled system which has long been exploiting its heroes and then leeaving them to die alone, denying its responsibility. (At the end, this behaviour is deliberately paralleled to the obstructionism of tobacco multinationals in relation to the dangers of smoking.)
Dr. Omalu, effectively portrayed by Will Smith, has the quiet confidence of someone who knows he is fighting for a just cause. Even in his moment of doubt there’s his wife to remind him that things do not just happen, and bringing the truth to the light (“come forward and speak” on behalf of those who can’t — that is the literal meaning of his full Nigerian name) is in a sense his vocation. This moral rectitude is, however, sometimes mixed with a disconcerting naiveté when dealing with his interlocutors.
Landesman is the director and screenwriter of Kill the messenger, another exposé story, and Parkland, an ensemble film on the Kennedy assassination. The aim of this joint production with Ridley Scott is noble, but its effect must be quite uncomfortable in an America where, as noted by one of the characters, football means not only sport, but entertainment, sponsors, charities, scholarships for underprivileged youth, and more.
Unfortunately, Landesman’s good intentions are not always served by an equally worthy craftmanship. The message that taking blows to the head for your entire life is really bad for you may too easily appear as common sense to the audience. On the other hand Omalu’s antagonists are so insignificant that his struggle, as strenuous as it is (at one point he risked expulsion and was even forced to move from Pittsburgh to California), cannot reach the epic tone it aspires to.
Not entirely a thriller (the threats never look like a real risk to his life, even if his wife loses a child), nor a scathing social criticism (he is perhaps too anxious not to question such a flagship American sport), the movie is also too slow in its progression at times.
All the same, its telling of Omalu’s story remains an honest attempt to document about how much a single man armed with faith and honesty can do to return his country of adoption to the greatness that first inspired him.
Problematic elements: some intense scenes of drug consumption.