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Will Smith’s confidence goes quiet in the workmanlike Concussion

will smithConcussion takes two things that America has consistently loved—Will Smith and investigative medical procedurals—and pits them against an even bigger cultural touchstone: the NFL. Smith plays Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian doctor working in Pittsburgh who examines the body and brain of deceased local hero Mike Webster (David Morse). In investigating how and why a 50-year-old man could die mysteriously after experiencing symptoms of dementia, forensic pathologist Omalu uncovers the NFL concussion crisis—the brain damage that can result after football players experience repeated concussions. The organization, depressingly but unsurprisingly, is not interested in his results beyond what it can do to discredit them.

Initially, Concussion follows Omalu and Webster in parallel, until they meet, such as it is, during Webster’s autopsy. It’s a procedure many in Pittsburgh would prefer not be conducted at all, out of a misguided form of respect. Because he doesn’t follow American football (and in fact only owns a television set in deference to American cultural norms), Omalu doesn’t recognize Webster, and one of the most interesting aspects of the film is the way it operates at least in part from an outsider’s view of the game’s brutality. “God did not intend for us to play football,” he says at one point, and the movie does not regard this view as absurd.

To the extent that Concussion can make its material—heavy on shots of people looking at microscopes and lots of talk about the ramifications of Omalu’s discovery—more cinematic, it does so by framing itself as an immigrant story.

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