The NFL can be REAL scary and not just when they blackout your TV viewing of the game. About 10 years ago a forensic pathologist discovered something horrifying, brought it to the attention of the National Football League, and was summarily routed for his findings. This is his story and I dare you NOT to get angry afterwards!
It’s 2002 and Pittsburgh Steelers favorite son, retired football player “Iron” Mike Webster (David Morse), has gone crazy. Estranged from his family, he’s a homeless man living in his car and suffering terrible dementia. His doctor (as well as Steelers doctor), Julian Bates (Alec Baldwin), can’t figure out what’s wrong with him. After Webster dies, his body goes to forensic pathologist, Dr. Bennett Omalu (Will Smith). This guy talks to dead bodies like friends, is super-smart and multi-educated, is hated by his jealous co-worker, but loved and admired by his boss, County Coroner Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks).
But in his autopsy, Omalu sees something odd. Very odd. A type of brain damage never seen before for a man in Webster’s condition. Soon another Steelers player dies under the same mysterious circumstances and Omalu makes the connection. He goes to the chief medical people in Pittsburgh to tell of his new findings: traumatic head injury brought about by football playing and mis-diagianosed by the NFL as Alzheimer’s for years! Omalu calls it chronic traumatic encephanlopathy, or CTE.
With more Steelers deaths popping up and CTE being the cause, Omalu, along with help from Cyril and Julian, gets his findings published in a prestigious medical journal. But while Omalu is relaxing with his recently acquired Kenyan girlfriend, Preme (Gugu Mbathra-Raw), things go south fast. The NFL attack Omalu as a quack and his findings as ludicrous, even getting their own “expert” on TV to publicly trash Omalu. NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell (Luke Wilson), even blasts Omalu at a press conference, disgracing him and his work, forcing Omalu to relocate in Lodi, California.
However, just like a Hail Mary football pass, years later Omalu is finally vindicated when NFL exec Dave Duerson (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), suffering from CTE, leaves a suicide note admitting Omalu was right. Congress steps in and the NFL is forced to take the concussion issue more seriously, even though to this day, a staggering amount of football injuries are still CTE related. Mad yet?
Based Jeanne Marie Laskas’ GQ Magazine article, Peter Landesman wrote the engaging screenplay with a nice docu feel to it, but it needed a better punch to it. Landesman, an investigative journalist, writes matter-of-factly without the slam-bang Hollywood style to really pump up the feel and urgency it deserved. And there’s his peculiar direction. Landesman, a novice director with only one other film to his credit, has some puzzling ideas about camerawork. He LOVES up-close, in-your-face shots of people (the eyes, mouth, nose, and hands especially) and then there are his questionable shots that make no sense at all; the abandoned lot scene is one of them. It’s rather baffling.
Aside from the fact that Smith is a good foot taller than the real Dr. Omalu, Smith does a wonderful, low-key job here without his usual ramped-up, high-energy performance. Brooks and Baldwin are both excellent as is Mbathra-Raw, the subtle strength behind the shy man. You’ll also notice a few TV actors from Grimm and Limitless making their big screen debut, too.
After all the smoke has settled and Guy has been exonerated, he gets a surprise. Mrs. Myrick shows up with all her late husbands files regarding his crazy research and gives it to Guy telling him, “My husband was trying to do a good thing, but in the wrong way”. Guy opens the package, views the materials, and proceeds towards the neurology building where he is now working. Will he continue down that path or. . .?
Based on Michael Palmer’s novel, the screenplay by Tony Gilroy (who wrote Michael Clayton) is a nice little thriller, directed by ace director Michael Apted. The problem here is in the casting of Hugh Grant. Yeah, he’s great as the bumbling, fumbling love-struck Brit who’s trying to comically get the girl, but as a serious doctor who’s life in serious danger and playing a sleuth as well? Naw, not happening. Hackman is great as always, as are supporting players Sarah Jessica Parker, Bill Nunn, and J.K. Simmons.