It’s certainly an interesting question whether or not moviegoers would be eager to line-up for a film about an autopsy doctor who discovers reasons to feel bad for people who play America’s most popular sport. Will Smith should be able draw some people into the theaters. One thing that we should note about Peter Landesman’s Concussion is that, despite some pre-release worries, it won’t be a complete whitewash of professional football’s concussion epidemic. Furthermore, hopes that Concussion would do for forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu what Micheal Mann’s The Insider did for whisteblower Jeffrey Wigand are unfounded. Concussion tries to be many things- a public health expose, a corporate thriller, and an immigrant love story that never comes together in a richly satisfying way. Concussion is a cautionary tale about blatant ignorance and a showcase for Will Smith. Smith delivers a wonderful, understated performance as Omalu, the doctor who discovered CTE in former NFL players. The film itself is deflating due to a confused and cliché-riddled screenplay, which struggles to take a complex story and finesse into a relatable tale.
What makes Omalu unique (other than his Nigerian accent which Smith nails) is that he dissects each body in the Pittsburgh coroner’s office as if they were still living patients, treating them with tender loving care. An outsider in a football crazy city, Omalu doesn’t think much of the name of Mike Webster when the 50-year-old’s body turns up in the city morgue. Mike Webster (a member of the championship Steeler teams of the 1970’s) is a local hero, yet after his retirement he started suffering memory loss, depression, mood swings, and eventually ends up being homeless. Omalu is puzzled by how an otherwise healthy athlete could suffer such a psychological breakdown and decides to examine his brain further (even if it means paying for the tests he wants to run out of pocket). What he discovers is shocking: a degree of neurological deterioration comparable to that of Alzheimer’s disease. He decides to the name the disorder chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), and further hypothesizes that thousands of head-on collisions endured in a pro football career are to blame. Omalu publishes his findings in a medical journal and it attracts instant pushback from the NFL.
Concussion certainly has enough material for a film that would be quite a compelling medical procedural. Mix in football fans willing to shoot the messengers especially if they have any bad news about America’s #1 sport, you would have had quite a potent subtext to the story. Omalu naively feels that his discovery will be welcomed by the NFL and that they will use it to make the game safer. Concussion never quite gains any momentum and plods along, stammering from one cliché riddled scene to the next. Concussion had no need to delve into Omalu’s personal life as all it did was serve as a roadblock to any sort of plot momentum.
It’s kinda of unfortunate, considering this story is most effective when it shines a spotlight on CTE, which affected players like Justin Strzelczyjk and Dave Duerson who both lost their lives due to CTE. There’s something heartbreaking about seeing these gladiators of the gridiron stumbling around, frightened and confused. The NFL takes it on the chin the most as Landesman splices in punishing blows while the TV announcers are going nuts (with the most troubling shot being that of peewee-aged kiddos tacking each other helmet to helmet).
Landsmen makes a tepid attempt at showing the consequences of Omalu telling the truth. Aside from a few crank calls, Landesman rarely shows what being a social pariah must have been like for Omalu. On the rare instances he does attempt to show the consequences of Omalu’s actions, the scenes are quite puzzling. One scene shows Omalu’s wife (Prema) believing that she’s being followed, and then immediately cuts to her having a miscarriage. Another scene has Omalu’s boss, Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks) dealing with a surprise raid of his office. If Landsmen is trying to imply that somehow these all because of the NFL, he doesn’t even begin to connect the dots. Also, who’s idea was it to case Luke Wilson as Roger Goodell? Having Luke Wilson in this film proves more of a distraction than anything.
However, Concussion certainly does belong to Will Smith as he gives his best performance in a film since Ali. Smith has a commanding presensce on the screen and he does in this film what you rarely see him do in any film – plays down the character. We don’t get our typical Will Smith like bravado but we do get is an actor who understands the pathos of the character he played and he knocked it out of the park. Smith will certainly garner attention for this role during awards season unlike the film he stars in.
In the interest of full disclosure, I was certainly pulling for this movie right from the get-go. Maybe it’s my passion for the game of football, but Concussion could have been something so much other than the missed opportunity that it turned out to be.