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Smith's performance drives sobering 'Concussion'
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Gugu Mbatha-Raw is Prema Mutiso, left, and Will Smith is Dr. Bennet Omalu in "Concussion." - photo by Josh Terry
"CONCUSSION" 3 stars Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Albert Brooks, Gugu Mbatha-Raw; PG-13 (thematic material including some disturbing images, and language); in general release

Theres a powerful irony that underscores a film about a man who wants nothing more than to be an American, yet finds himself battling one of Americas most celebrated institutions.

Concussion is based on the true story of the National Football Leagues concussion crisis and the man who forced it into the light. The man at the center of the story is Dr. Bennet Omalu, played by Will Smith in one of his most daring roles in recent memory. Omalu is a pathologist out of Nigeria who is decorated with degrees and determined to be an American citizen. Hes also a little bit eccentric, opening each autopsy by addressing his patient and asking for their help in guiding him to their cause of death.

This quest gets the story rolling once Omalu encounters the body of Mike Webster, a Hall of Fame center for the Pittsburgh Steelers who played 18 seasons in the NFL. In a series of heartbreaking early scenes, we see Webster reduced to a manic, homeless mess. After the 50-year-old Webster commits suicide in the back of a pickup truck, Omalu performs his autopsy and discovers the first evidence of a disease that will come to be known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.

Omalu estimates that over the course of Websters career, he suffered more than 70,000 blows to the head, and the doctor is sure that the ex-Steeler isnt the only player suffering from the disease. As he pursues his research, more players fall victim to CTE, and Omalu encounters both support and massive resistance to his efforts.

The primary support comes from Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks) and Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), who used to be the Steelers team doctor. The resistance, unfortunately, comes from the NFL and pretty much anyone loosely connected to it.

At the same time, Omalu is trying to build a life of his own. Omalus friendship with a fellow immigrant named Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) eventually becomes romantic, and their pursuit of the American Dream makes their obstacles all the more painful as Omalu encounters vicious harassment for his research.

For his part, Smiths portrayal of Dr. Omalu is very effective and not just because of his convincing African accent. One of the biggest surprises of Concussion may be its religious undertones. Numerous films have mined the faith-based angle in recent years with varying success. But Concussion might be more effective than all of them, even more so because of how director Peter Landesman portrays Omalus religious faith hand-in-hand with his devotion to science.

But the NFL remains Concussions elephant in the room, and even though Landesmans film takes pains to acknowledge the beauty and grace of the game, the result feels understandably one-sided. Sequences of violent hits and scenes of defiant, conspiring executives make it difficult to see the league and Commissioner Roger Goodell (played in brief spurts by Luke Wilson) as anything but the bad guy.

If the film feels a little incomplete, its probably because its a story that continues to play out every Sunday. In a lot of ways, watching Concussion as a football fan amounts to a two-hour crisis of conscience. Nobody forces anyone to play, and nobody forces any of us to watch. But regardless of who is culpable, Concussion gives audiences some sobering things to ponder.

"Concussion" is rated PG-13 for thematic material including some disturbing images, and language; running time: 123 minutes.