While conducting an autopsy on former NFL football player Mike Webster (David Morse), forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) discovers neurological deterioration that is similar to Alzheimer’s disease. Omalu names the disorder chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and publishes his findings in a medical journal. As other athletes face the same diagnosis, the crusading doctor embarks on a mission to raise public awareness about the dangers of football-related head trauma while battling the NFL who deny his research and the severity of the danger in which this trauma is responsible.
I will say that I am a football fan. I watch NFL football regularly as a matter of fact. I am very aware of what happens during football games. It doesn’t take much of a genius to figure out what might lead from playing football at this level on a regular basis. Although I am faintly aware of the article in which this film is based, I can use my knowledge of the NFL and my imagination to figure it out. The story here is about a forensic pathologist/coroner named Dr. Bennet Omalu (Smith) who discovers a mysterious brain condition while performing the autopsy of former Pittsburgh Steelers player Mike Webster (Morse). He later names this condition chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, and publishes his research in a medical journal. As this condition becomes more widespread, he goes on a mission to raise awareness of this issue, speaking about the dangers of head trauma in football while also battling the NFL in the court of public perception. I personally know better but 2002 was a much different time. People just couldn’t make the connection between football and head trauma despite in being so blatantly obvious (even I probably could have at 12 years old) but maybe they were just being distracted by the violence or they just didn’t know any better. This film was good at capturing this sentiment in a perhaps over-the-top fashion by using caricatures of overzealous football coaches and people of said distinction. Despite admissions to the contrary, I had the impression that this film was anti-football. Maybe it was just due to its portrayal of the NFL as a shady organization that would rather sacrifice player safety than profits. I found that the film played the conspiracy angle very well but I would have liked to have seen more NFL involvement other than an invisible hand making people go against Omalu. It was definitely entertaining to follow Omalu from his beginning as a positive, American immigrant making his discovery, finding more evidence, and then shaping it into something he would later use to challenge the NFL. This journey along with the NFL’s intervention along the way was engaging to watch. Sure it was predictable knowing what I already knew but I didn’t mind. What helped was definitely Smith’s performance as Omalu. His accent may deter some but I didn’t mind. I found he brought some charm and intensity to the role highlighting the character’s determination and morality. Omalu is also given a love interest in the form of a woman named Prema Mutiso (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). These scenes were okay and gave Omalu more of a human side but they could have gone without these. Albert Brooks (Dr. Cyril Wecht) and Alec Baldwin (Dr. Julian Bailes) brought some levity here in supporting roles. Overall, this isn’t quite a sports movie by definition but is a story about determination and fighting for what is right and for that, it succeeded.