Concussion (2015) / Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for thematic material including some disturbing images, and language
Running Time: 123 min.
Cast: Will Smith, Albert Brooks, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, David Morse, Luke Wilson, Mike O'Malley, Eddie Marsan, Hill Harper, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje
Small role: Paul Reiser, Richard T. Jones
Director: Peter Landesman
Screenplay: Peter Landesman (based on the GQ article, "Game Brain", by Jeanne Marie Laskas)
Review published December 22, 2015
Will Smith (Focus, After Earth) stars as Dr. Bennet Omalu, a well-educated, Nigerian-born forensic pathologist working in Pittsburgh, who, in 2002, discovers a type of degenerative brain injury that seemingly has resulted from playing football, America's most popular and lucrative sport. After diagnosing the brains of a couple of deeply troubled professional players who exhibited progressively erratic behavior before ending their lives prematurely after many years of taking blows to the head on the field, Dr. Omalu publishes his startling findings in a research paper, calling the disease CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). The study immediately begins to draw interest from many parties, some who want to help, and others who want to discredit or silence him from potentially taking down an industry worth billions of dollars.
Written and directed by Peter Landesman (Parkland), it's a skillfully made formula docudrama, highly manufactured for dramatic effect (and Oscar potential), and yet effective in making its issue seem of utmost importance. Landesman drums up the suspense where he can, including Omalu having to deal with a calculated smear campaign in the public, and in seeing those who've abetted him get indicted by the government, seemingly because they want Omalu to stand down from his pulpit. Harassment ensues from every angle, as threats come in via anonymous phone calls, and Omalu's Kenyan wife, Prema (Mbatha-Raw, Jupiter Ascending), feels she's being followed when she's out and about alone. The stress begins to take its toll on the family in some very serious ways, especially in their attempts to have a child, as well as in the financial issues that seep in with legal fees and Omalu's insistence on paying for continued research on his own time when the government refuses to lend a hand.
It's been a while since we've seen Will Smith in such a respectable dramatic role, and Concussion is a reminder that the man is a terrific actor when he takes a role worthy of stretching his talents. The Nigerian accent is a bit iffy, but Smith imbues his character with all of the gravitas, intellect and emotion necessary to see him as a rounded character who is noble without being completely perfect. He is a bit naive in thinking that everyone would thank him for bringing this issue that sees people die and families destroyed, when a great deal of money is at stake for those who make their living in the NFL, a sport often celebrated for its violence.
If there's a downside to the film, other than its obvious massaging the true story for maximum for Hollywood-formula impact, it's that Landesman can't quite decide if the film should be about Omalu, as an immigrant trying to make it in America with a wife and potential for starting a family, or for the disease he discovers, and the trouble this causes for those who show the science that threatens to take down a sports empire. While Landesman does effectively portray Omalu is a heroic light as the film's protagonist, there's no way to cleanly tie the film up tidily when there are several themes explored, leading to a conclusion that seems deflating given all of the vested interest we give to Omalu's crusade against a wildly popular American institution. When compared to the outstanding investigative drama Spotlight, which gives us rich characterizations without straying from the story's main focus, Concussion feels a bit old-school Hollywood in its approach.
Even if the last few moments of the film are left wanting, Concussion is still a compelling and surprisingly stirring medical drama up to that point. There's a solid central performance by Smith, who manages to show why one shouldn't quite count his career as being over, given the raw, understated emotion through which he shows throughout the film, especially as he struggles to keep his composure in the face of overwhelming pressure from all sides to cave in.
For parents who are thinking of letting their children play school football, it'll make you think; for those who have a compulsion to cheer when seeing an NFL player take an especially nasty hit to the head, it'll make you think twice.
©2015 Vince Leo