When watching football, fans love to celebrate the big hits. After all, players hitting each other is a key part of the sport, and huge sacks and tackles can perfectly illustrate one team’s dominance over another. They’re replayed constantly during the game, often in slow motion, and there are shows that dedicate blocks of time to ranking the roughest takedowns of the week. This probably won’t change after the release of writer/director Peter Landesman’s Concussion, but what may is the way we think about it. More than just muscle and plastic armor brutally clashing together, it’s brains being throttled around an individual’s skull. It’s an impressive thing for any film to change a perspective like that, and while the movie does suffer from narrative flaws that are organic to the true story being told, it still comes together as a compelling drama anchored by a great lead performance.
The story centers around Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith), a Nigeria-born forensic pathologist who is working in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania when he stumbles upon something absolutely massive. Following the death of Mike Webster (David Morse) - a Hall of Fame former center for the Pittsburgh Steelers who spent his retirement years experiencing dementia and living in his pickup truck – Omalu is assigned the autopsy, and discovers something very strange. Despite the fact that Webster had been self-mutilating, reported hearing voices, and experienced double vision and dizziness, his brain seems to be entirely fine, and CT scans are perfectly normal. Unwilling to let it go, and using his own money to pay for the tests, Omalu investigates deeper and winds up discovering the neurodegenerative disease that he dubs chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
While Omalu initially believes that his work will be celebrated by the National Football League, he is disturbed to learn that they have the exact opposite reaction, attempting to denounce both him and his work. Unwilling to back down in the face of one of the biggest corporate entities in the country – not to mention death threats from football fans – Omalu continues his research alongside forensic consultant Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks) and former Steelers team doctor Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), and pushes for fundamental changes to be made to protect those who play the game now, and those who will play in the future.
Portrayals of players like Mike Webster, Justin Strzelczyk (Matthew Willig), and Andre Waters (Richard T. Jones) really drive home the devastating effects of CTE in emotional fashion, and the film pulls no punches in its portrayal of the NFL – which truly looks terrible in its complete ignorance and dismissals of calls for help. Both of these elements reinforce the import of Concussion, and give it significant weight, though the movie is somewhat undercut by the restrictions that come with telling a true story. For example, there’s absolutely no denying Omalu’s importance in the discovery of CTE and exposing serious problems within the NFL, but at the same time, it’s ultimately not his direct action that winds up getting the issue acknowledged within the league – and is at times specifically left out of the picture. This, in combination with the fact that head injuries are still very much an issue in the sport of football, give the feature a few hurdles that it can’t quite leap over by the time it arrives at the finish line.
Landesman works to offset these narrative troubles by making Concussion more about Dr. Bennet Omalu’s story and his American dream. This doesn’t entirely work, however, as the controversy is simply more interesting than the doctor’s personal life (which involves his growing relationship with his would-be wife Prema Mutiso, played by an unfortunately underutilized Gugu Mbatha-Raw). This focus also really prevents any kind of significant look behind the scenes of the National Football League and their actions in response to Omalu’s findings. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell – what you think might be a significant part - is played by Luke Wilson in the film, but if you blink a few too many times you may actually miss him. Really the biggest representatives for the organization are Hill Harper as “Christopher Jones,” a guy who really just walks around and looks sinister; and Arliss Howard as a doctor working with the NFL who is around for all of one scene.
s Still, the movie does present Will Smith the opportunity to dig into a strong character, and his performance deserves acclaim. Dr. Bennet Omalu is a man who is intensely passionate about both his work and being an American, and Smith keys into those elements to drive a really wonderful turn. Though he has been known to occasionally wear “Movie Star” on his sleeve, the actor puts in a thoroughly authentic performance as Omalu, accent and all. It’s far from the typical turn that we expect from him – as he turns down the charisma a few notches and flips off the joke switch – but he maintains his commanding presence and is as easy to root for as ever.
Concussion is driven forward by a legitimately eye-opening investigation into some disturbing territory, and that element alone makes it worth seeing and notable – despite the flaws featured in the classic David vs. Goliath story at its center. It’s affecting and effective material, and it may very well change the way audiences watch their favorite sport.