(2015) True Life Drama (Columbia) Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Albert Brooks, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Morse, Arliss Howard, Mike O’Malley, Eddie Marsan, Hill Harper, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Stephen Moyer, Richard T. Jones, Paul Reiser, Luke Wilson, Sara Lindsey, Matthew Willig, Bitsie Tulloch, Kevin Jiggetts, Gary Grubbs, Joni Bovill. Directed by Peter Landesman
Football is our modern coliseum and the players our modern gladiators. They are admired, respected and beloved pretty much throughout the United States. When a character here says that the NFL “owns a day of the week – it used to belong to religion, but now it’s theirs,” he isn’t kidding. Football is a mania and nearly a religion itself.
But the game takes a toll. It is a game of violence, when behemoths smash and crash into each other like meteors in the asteroid belt. Helmets go flying, players wobble off, tottering on their cleats and sometimes, people get concussions. However, the National Football League takes precautions, don’t they?
When Hall of Fame center Mike Webster (Morse) dies unexpectedly at the age of 50, the city of Pittsburgh mourns. That he died homeless and some would whisper crazy is glossed over in the torrents of grief marking the loss of the city’s warrior. When it comes time to autopsy the body, the task is given to Bennet Omalu (Smith), a Nigerian immigrant who happens to be the forensic pathologist on duty at the Allegheny County Morgue.
What Omalu sees puzzles him. Apparently, Webster was in excellent shape. There were no toxins in his body that would explain his heart just stopping, or his erratic behavior in the years prior to his death. Why is this man dead, wondered Omalu although an antagonistic colleague (O’Malley) urges him to wrap it up. However, Omalu can’t do that. He orders expensive tests – that he pays for himself – to look into the why of Webster’s demise. What he finds is shocking.
Apparently repeated blows to the head can cause trauma that eventually causes early dementia, excruciating headaches, personality changes and suicidal tendencies. That condition is called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (or CTE for short) and as he passes on his findings to his sympathetic boss Cyril Wecht (Brooks), other players like Dave Duerson (Akinnuoye-Agbaje), Andre Waters (Jones) and Justin Strzelczyk (Willig) begin to show signs of the same problem.
When Omalu takes his findings public, at first the NFL ignores them but as the good doctor persists to the point where the issue can’t be ignored, they go on the offensive and suddenly Omalu’s competency as a doctor is question as well as his status as an immigrant. In the midst of building a life in America with his new Kenyan wife Prema (Mbatha-Raw), his American dream may be turning into an American nightmare.
In some ways this is a very important story. The safety of the players should be of paramount importance to the league (you would think) as the players are their commodity. However, the NFL chose to fight against the safety of their player, reasoning that these findings could kill the game altogether. Maybe the game should be killed in that case – no game is worth dying for. I’m sure many readers will find that sacrilegious.
However, Landesman chooses to frame it in the love story between Prema and Omalu and then they draw Prema up as support girlfriend 101, with very little character to the character. She’s so bland that the only reason you can see Omalu falling in love is because Mbatha-Raw is so extraordinarily beautiful. However, the blandness isn’t Mbatha-Raw’s fault – she’s proven herself an outstanding actress. The fault is of the writers who chose to put most of their efforts into Omalu but also the male supporting characters, like Dr. Julian Bailes (Baldwin), a former Steeler team physician who becomes one of Omalu’s staunchest allies, and Dr. Wecht, whom Brooks imbues with a kind of menschiness, as New York Daily News reviewer Allen Salkin so aptly put it.
This is Smith’s movie however and he runs with it like Adrian Peterson through the secondary. Smith is often underrated as an actor because of his laid-back charm and his Fresh Prince grin. One forgets that he has two Oscar nominations (for Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness) and some truly memorable performances in other movies. While his filmography of late hasn’t had the kind of success that he’s used to, he still has skills and he could very well get his third Oscar nomination for this performance.
&The movie doesn’t have the emotional punch that it probably should have, although being a non-football fan it might not resonate with me as much as it might. However, parents whose kids want to get into the game would do well to look into CTE and ways of preventing it (there are some excellent pads out there that protect players from concussions in the brain but also in the heart). The NFL certainly comes off here as a somewhat indifferent corporate entity more interested in maintaining the profits rather than the player’s long-term safety. It makes me wonder how the movie got permission to show the logos of the various teams and helmets on-camera and use game footage of NFL games. However, this is a movie in which the performance is better than the overall film. That’s not the last time you’ll hear that particular analysis of a film this holiday season.
REASONS TO GO: One of Smith’s best performances. An important issue for any fan or parent of a player.
REASONS TO STAY: Pedestrian in places. Wastes Mbatha-Raw.
FAMILY VALUES: Some disturbing images and harsh language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Matthew Willig, who plays Steeler defender Justin Strzelczyk in the movie, played in the National Football League for 14 years for among others, the Jets, Packers, Niners, Panthers and Rams (twice).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/2/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Imitation Game
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Emperor’s New Clothes