Concussion is a two-year-old film“based on” the true story of Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Pittsburgh pathologist who investigates the brain damage in former professional football players, and that is its main strength. His findings challenge the NFL to its core, and that is the central conflict of the film. Co-written and directed by Peter Landesman (Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House) this is possibly the best and only film addressing this topic at the moment, and hence is valuable primarily as a vehicle for a story that is fascinating and gripping, even if it isn’t always well served by this film version.
As in most films of this ilk, there is exaggeration for the sake of conflict. [Spoiler alert]. Government goons didn’t come after Omalu’s boss after the publication of his first significant article on brain damage in players, and Omalu wasn’t quite as supportive of his boss as the film would lead us to believe. I’m also not sure what to make of the set-up and development of his relationship with this wife, which comes off as staid Hollywood fairy tale rather than anything breathing of life.
Will Smith as the lead is the likely reason the film got made, and he holds it together. It’s a heartfelt performance, even if he doesn’t always lock down on the accent (Omalu is Nigerian). But Smith certainly looks different and carries himself differently here than in his other films, a triumph of a kind. There was the usual hubbub about his not getting an Oscar nomination, as if the only real reason was racism—hogwash. It was a good performance in a rather flawed film, and while it was steady, it certainly didn’t offer Smith much in the way of showing his acting chops beyond an almost-nailed accent and staying relatively consistent in playing a character quite different than himself. One who could have received an Oscar nomination in a supporting role is Albert Brooks, a criminally under-appreciated dramatic actor who should have won his own Oscar for Drive, where he wasn’t even nominated.
The film is all over the place, and essentially falls apart in the second half. To maintain tension and ramp up conflict, we have to make the NFL the villain, but without vilifying the game of football, which is referred to as “beautiful” at least one too many times; hedging every related bet seems to be the modus operandi of the film. Certainly the NFL, which in the best line of the film is described as “own[ing] a day of the week,” put up a great deal of resistance to Omalu’s initial findings, and like all large corporations, dragged its feet in finally acknowledging his findings and making some changes. But research into the longevity of professional football players and their likelihood of suicide actually indicates the opposite of what the film suggests. There are bones thrown to the issues of nativism, racism, mindless sports fans, and possible government-business conspiracies, but there is no consistent perspective or context for them; they are tossed in as one makes a soup out of what one discovers in the fridge, no matter what the original recipe might have called for.
Concussion is a good “starter” film on the issue of “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy,” or CTE, and is somewhat entertaining as long as it sticks closely to the medical findings and how some football players were affected. The romance is so cliché that one wonders if the whole thing was made up to add some interest to a possibly boring medical drama (it wasn’t). Smith is fine, and the structure of the film, while something of a unraveling mess at times, contains the gist of a story that is worthy of respect and interest. As with too many other films with great stories to tell, this flawed film is the best we have for the foreseeable future that tells this particular story. For those interested in the story, Concussion is a solid primer.