Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith), as a Nigerian immigrant to the United States, had carved out a pretty nice niche for himself in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked with the County Coroner. He took pride in being thorough in his autopsies, and began his sessions with his cadavers by talking to them about cooperating with him, to find out what had killed them, and why. His boss thought he was a bit looney, but his co-workers appreciated his thoroughness, and his dedication to his task. Out of the morgue, he was a churchgoing man, but otherwise led a quiet, simple life, living in a neat little apartment and saving his money. He was pretty much fulfilling his dream of coming to America and living his life here. He liked American music, but other parts of the culture were not appealing to him, like football.
But of course Pittsburgh is a football town. That's why, when “Iron” Mike Webster was brought in to the morgue, people took notice. Mike Webster (David Morse) was one of the stars of the Pittsburgh Steelers NFL juggurnaut of the 1970's, but he had fallen on hard times: homeless, living out of his pickup truck, suffering from depression and dementia and inexplicable bouts of violent rage, and died at 50. Dr. Omalu was puzzled why this seemingly healthy former athlete suffered like this, and he was determined to find the root cause. Eventually, he did: chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Repeated blows to the head, from playing football.
Of course no fan wanted to believe this. It would take away much of the whimsy and passion of the graceful, violent ballet on display every Sunday. Though barely supported by his co-workers, and stonewalled by the NFL, Dr. Omalu quietly proceeded to prove that other former NFL players suffered the same fate, which would make his discovery not just one random sample, but scientifically verifiable.
It was the science, of course, that eventually won over some important voices inside football, including the Steelers' own team physician, Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin). Eventually, people did listen to them, starting with the NFL players association, who eventually filed suit against the NFL for disability damages. The NFL only settled with the condition that the question of “what they knew when” would never be pursued further.
Now, of course, there are “concussion protocols” that have to be followed by every team (which has spread to other professional sports, as well). But still, it's sad to see some of our former sports heroes reduced to such pitiable caricatures of themselves (see Muhammed Ali). And still, we fans root for our home teams by the thousands, and play fantasy football by the millions (as we also continue to debate whether that should be considered gambling, and regulated accordingly).
Director and writer Peter Landesman throws in a love interest for Dr. Omalu, Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, whose mother is English and father is South African), a Kenyan refugee. Both actors sport convincing African accents, but more importantly, there is a personal connection and emotional support between them which enables Dr. Omalu to carry on despite the slings and arrows. They eventually marry and settle in California. There are no real surprises in this film----there's been plenty of publicity about CTE lately----but the performances here are solid and it's interesting to know the “back story” of how this medical disability was finally scientifially diagnosed and made public. It's enough to wish your grandkids would take up a sport less physical, that doesn't normally involve blows to the head. Tennis, anyone?
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Dr. Ronald P. Salfen is the Supply Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Mabank, Texas