Will Smith memorably morphed into “The Greatest” for his role as Muhammad Ali in Michael Mann’s 2001’s Ali. The actor spookily inhabited not only Ali’s physical presence but his spirit, much in the same way his Ali co-star, Jamie Foxx, did three years later playing music icon Ray Charles. Smith was able to spend time with Ali before taking on the role — but the youthful Ali that Will Smith embodied on screen was not the man he met. The Ali that Smith encountered was by then profoundly physically compromised by Parkinson’s disease, very likely the result of a lifetime spent pursuing and dominating the sport he loved: the dangerous “sweet science” of boxing.
All of which put Smith in a unique position to understand — in an intimate, personal and painful way — the long-term effects of repeated physical pounding suffered by elite athletes in high contact sports. Smith’s experience with Ali doubtless echoed in his mind as he considered the script of Concussion, his new film which exposes the brutal health consequences of life in the NFL. The brain disease the concussion links with repeated pummeling is not Parkinson’s but chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). It’s a different diagnosis, but in one powerful way it’s the same: the devastation wreaked upon once physically extraordinary human beings is irreversible. Concussion opens on Christmas day.