Rather than outlining the plot, let me start by telling you why this film sucked. Putting aside the issue of it being pure propaganda, this is just not a good film. The film is morose at best – the direct thinks it’s ironically tense. There are no good moments. There are no moments of inspiration and no moments of genuine outrage. There are no exciting moments either; everything was dull. There are no peaks or valleys. The colors are dull. The acting of Will Smith was dull (his wife was full of bullship to claim he didn’t get an award because of racism). The story is dull. Every scene involves people standing or sitting in a room talking until they reach the conclusion you knew was coming all along. The film even deals with a couple suicides and yet presents those in about as dull a manner possible.
The film follows Dr. Bennet Omala (Will Smith), a forensic pathologist with the Allegheny County coroner’s office in Pittsburgh. Omala is a Nigerian American and he was the first to discover chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). This is a medical condition which results in destructive proteins attacking the brain’s tissue after repeated traumatic blows to the head, i.e. concussions.
The film opens showing Omala testifying in court to save a wrongly convicted man from the death sentence. He begins by modestly listing his credentials. This goes on several minutes and is meant to get the audience to believe that (1) Omala is ultra-qualified in and beyond his field and (2) he is humble and should be liked. He then tells us why the convicted man could not have been the killer. His analysis is simple to grasp and demonstrates that Omala thinks about things others ignored and has a gift for seeing obvious things that people with a political interest, e.g. prosecutors, either intentionally or recklessly overlook. We also learn that his primary motivating trait in life is to save people.
In other words, he’s a saint.
Still not sure? Ok. His boss at the hospital warns him that he needs to be more willing to go with the crowd and to stop being so gosh darn pure.
By this point, the film has cast Omala as the ultimate unimpeachable source. We’ve seen his noble, humble bearing. Everyone else in the film will slouch. We’ve heard his credentials which are absolutely nothing special, but which are presented as amazing. Of course, we will hear no one else’s credentials, as the film wants you to see him as the only expert. We’ve learned he acts only with the most selfless of motives. With every other character, we are constantly reminded of their economic interest. Even a man in the streets we are told doesn’t want his city’s investment in a football stadium wasted.
Next the film sets up the conflict, and it does so in the most strawman of manners. When Omala discovers CTE, his medical bosses immediately threaten to suspend him and deny him any chance to move forward to confirm his diagnosis. Why? They're scared. Everyone is on the NFL’s payroll and doctors are too terrified to go against the NFL – characters even whisper when discussing things the NFL won’t like. Indeed, we are assured that the NFL is so powerful that it “owns a day of the week.” Its stadiums are the heart of cities like Pittsburgh. To destroy football would bring the wrath of millions of fans. Of course, the fact that CTE wouldn’t destroy football at all is never mentioned. Nor is the fact that the players union is intensely contentious against the NFL and would happily use this against the NFL. In the story, they are beholden to the NFL.
Moreover, the world is dangerously pro-NFL. Everywhere Omala goes, he causally makes some mention of the Steelers only to have average citizens verbally attack him.
They threaten Omala and basically demand that he testify falsely against his boss or he will be charged as well. He refuses and instead agrees to resign and go away. They then threaten to deport him.
Here’s the thing. CTE could be real. It makes sense to me and I personally suspect it’s true. But this movie was so obnoxious that it had me wanting to see Omala fail. The film canonizes Omala at every turn. He has no flaws. It feels the need to make him unimpeachable as a professional, beyond biased, noble of heart, and nice to the point of meekness... a longtime indicator of propaganda is when the hero is meek.
At the same time, it not only demonizes those who oppose Omala, but it creates this bizarre world where average people act like they are going to hunt him in the streets if he reveals the dirty secret everyone knows but pretends isn’t real.
The film also presents a purely biased point of view. Obvious counter points get excluded. The credentials of competing experts are ignored and their supposed bias gets announced. In a rather dirty moment, they present David Duerson as an NFL hack who mocks the players with CTE until one kills himself, until Duerson kills himself when he too gets it. His family denies that Duerson ever did this.
I’m not saying that advocacy films need to be unbiased, but there is a point where things go from being advocacy to being glaringly one-sided to being total smears. This film was a smear, and that hurt it tremendously. Having seen it, I am left wondering why this was even a film rather than a documentary. I am left wondering why the film was so shady too about a theory that seems to make sense and appears to be supported by lots of evidence. Are they hiding something?
That’s the problem. This is a propaganda piece for true believers and no one else. No wonder it failed. Thoughts?