The idea of losing yourself and your mind is a horrific one and one of the most human of all fears – imagine how much worse it would be if it was linked to a pastime you adored. That was the case back in 2002, when a coroner began to discover the level of potential harm American football could do to players, and Concussion recounts that story. Sadly, there is no teeth to the movie – it is a retelling of the facts, but one that is too safe and hits all the usual beats. Despite a brilliant performance by Will Smith, Concussion is an average movie.
The film recounts the true story of Dr Bennet Omalu (Will Smith), a pathologist in Pennsylvania. While conducting an autopsy of former NFL football player Mike Webster (David Morse), Omalu discovers a neurological deterioration that is similar to Alzheimer’s disease. He names the disorder chronic traumatic encephalopathy and, on the advice of colleague Dr Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), he publishes his findings in a medical journal. More and more athletes succumb to the same diagnosis and the crusading doctor (along with the help of former Steelers team doctor Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin)) faces the corporation on a mission to raise public awareness about the dangers of football-related head trauma.
Concussion is a well-acted and timely film about a subject that is very important. Like the best debate style films, it is well aware that the best way to set about it is not forcing a side, but rather to lay out the facts as truthfully as it can. It is a clever movie in the way it criticises a big part of American culture whilst upholding the values of the American dream – Dr Omalu is a man who admires the country and what it represents, and is therefore all the more struck by the level of corporate dishonesty he becomes privy to.
This clash is, however, the film’s big weakness – it wants to be both a thriller that deals with corporate malfeasance and one man’s journey to help reveal the truth, and the love story of a pair of immigrants who want to try and make their way in the land of dreams. Both halves, then, are functional, but they also detract from the other.
The early half of the picture employs some excellent directing and cinematography that makes Omalu’s discovery a gripping sequence (rendering shots of him looking through a microscope as quite interesting) and continues this pattern throughout in many scenes of Omalu’s quest. Any momentum it builds, though, is defused the moment we wind up back with Omalu’s wife (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). This isn’t a dig at the actress, who does a fine job, but rather the composition of the narrative.
These home life sections could be pardonable if they were more connected to the main story, but they aren’t really. Omalu is told that clashing with the NFL will lead to him becoming a pariah and facing unimaginable flack. In the end, this turns out to be a single angry phone call and, as such, there is never really any tension generated in the narrative. There is no real villain or figure for the viewer to dislike (fair enough, some might argue, as the gripe is more with the institution than anyone is particular) and Omalu is too solemn a character – this helps make the plot feel as if it is just going through the motions, and the climax never really feels as triumphant and earned as it should be.
Will Smith is fantastic here – he plays a role straight for a change, and he is a revelation. His Omalu is a gentle and compassionate individual eager to do the right thing in his blissful naiveté, and the understated portrayal mounts an incredible charm offense that will keep you watching. He certainly helps to lift the film, such is his gravitational presence. Baldwin is effective as the doctor coming to terms with the ramifications of the illness, and Albert Brooks (as is typical of him) lights up the screen every time he appears.
The movie’s conclusion is massively unsatisfying, as is the film – it feels very much like a movie of two halves, and so fails to embrace the more interesting aspects of its story. It is competently acted all round and Smith delivers one of the best performances of his career, but all-in-all, despite some memorable moments and some effective scenes, Concussion is ultimately a forgettable picture that could have done much more with the subject.
Director: Peter Landesman
Cast: Will Smith (Dr. Bennet Omalu), Alec Baldwin (Dr. Julian Bailes), Albert Brooks (Dr. Cyril Wecht), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Prema Mutiso), David Morse (Mike Webster), Arliss Howard (Dr. Joseph Maroon)
Running Time: 123 Mins