Concussion is a film that made this critic quite angry after watching it. First, because if I needed any more reasons to dislike the NFL than I already have, the picture provided them; and second, because the movie itself falls short of greatness and doesn’t deliver its message as powerfully as it could and should have. Screenwriter and director Peter Landesman (Parkland) has all the ingredients on hand for a sports-based version of something like The Insider or Michael Clayton, but he bogs the movie down with tangents that distract from the main story.
Will Smith plays real-life doctor Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian forensic pathologist who is working in Pittsburgh when he begins to put together the connections between a rash of madness and suicides among former NFL players (mainly from his adopted hometown’s beloved Steelers) and the head injuries the players have sustained in their years on the field. Backed by his boss, Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), Omalu publishes his findings on CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and how it has destroyed the brains of several players – and instantly finds himself the target of a smear campaign and perhaps even worse apparently orchestrated by the NFL itself.
Landesman, basing the film on the 2009 GQ article “Game Brain” by Jeanne Marie Laskas that exposed the NFL’s treachery on this, starts his story by showing us one-time Steelers legend Mike Webster (David Morse), now estranged from his familiar and living a filthy existence in a car in an empty lot, self-medicating to drive voices and noises out of his head. It’s a shocking opening and a sad spectacle we see repeated several times throughout the film. But aside from these grim images, the film moves along at a rather dull pace, and the story never achieves the urgency and passion required to truly hit home.
It’s also bogged down by utterly unnecessary side trips into Omalu’s personal life as he begins a romance with a fellow immigrant, Prema Mutiso (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Their relationship is, apparently, supposed to show how Omalu begins to formulate a life outside his work and also represents his desire (oft-stated in the film) to buy into the American Dream: house in the ‘burbs, kids, etc.) but Landesman strains to connect this in any meaningful way to the main topic and the scenes with Mbatha-Raw – who is relegated to the same hackneyed, unwavering, dutiful partner/spouse we’ve seen a million times before – is wasted in these inert stretches of the film.
The movie comes haltingly back to life when we get back to the concussion scandal, and here Landesman is helped by some sharp supporting performances by Brooks – who makes anything he’s in better when he’s onscreen – and Alec Baldwin as a former Steelers team doctor who conscience drives him to help Omalu get his message out. As for Smith, he is mostly excellent in the film and completely submerges his usual high-energy Big Willie movie star schtick in a quiet, restrained turn that reminded me of his underrated and sterling work in Ali. When Omalu finally lets his anger out – in a confrontation with an NFL flack sent to intimidate and demoralize him – we can palpably feel the rage that has been building behind Omalu’s placid exterior.
But the rest of Omalu’s life story, with all due respect, is just not interesting enough and undermines the very real injustice that is supposedly being served here. And even that is bungled as Landesman portrays CTE like that demon that jumps from person to person in the Denzel Washington horror picture Fallen. The player who tries to help Morse’s Webster in the film’s opening scene is afflicted/possessed next, right on down the line until the monster gets to Dave Duerson (Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje), a Hall of Fame safety who brushes off the other players’ pleas for help, gets all up in Omalu’s face at a conference and then ultimately is brought down by CTE like it’s some sort of avenging spirit.
Duerson and the other men are never presented as fully fleshed out characters, since the film is always cutting back to Omalu, and that is finally the movie’s downfall. Is it about this immigrant doctor who earnestly wants to embrace his adopted country, or about the outrageous medical cover-up that has proven so tragic for so many players and families and eventually forced the NFL to (somewhat) change its ways?
The sad part is that the movie doesn’t need the romance or a whole lot of details about Omalu buying a house or going to a nightclub for the first time, but the writer/director apparently thought differently. Focusing on Omalu’s search for the truth (without constantly reminding us that this is what he’s doing) and the struggle with the NFL, which only comes to the forefront fully in the film’s second half, would have made for a much more electrifying story and film. Landesman doesn’t want to get too angry – whether it was not to alarm Academy voters too much (the movie has the taint of Oscar bait around it) or to avoid any hassles himself from the NFL, I couldn’t tell you.
As I said earlier, I already dislike the NFL for a number of reasons: its ability to rake in untold millions of dollars while somehow retaining non-profit, tax-free status; its protection of abusive players and wife beaters; its power to get cities to close schools and make life harder for low-income residents while finding $250 million for new, elite-friendly stadiums; and the marketing that has turned Super Bowl Sunday into a more important date on the calendar than fucking Election Day. The CTE scandal is yet another example of how flagrantly the NFL dismissed the lives and well-being of others – in this case the very players that bring in the money that the league doesn’t pay taxes on. There is a story to be told here, and it’s too bad that Concussion tells it in such tedious fashion.
Concussion opens in theaters on December 25.