Peter Landesman's drama pulls no punches in its critique of the NFL, but a cliched, confused script lets the film down.
Perhaps the most important thing to note about Peter Landesman’s “Concussion” is that, despite some pre-release hand-wringing, worries that it would represent a whitewash of professional football’s concussion epidemic are completely unfounded. Unfortunately, pre-release hopes that it would do for crusading forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu what Michael Mann’s “The Insider” did for big tobacco whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand are equally unfounded, as the film’s attempt to marry an earnest public-health expose with a corporate-malfeasance thriller and a sweet immigrant love story never comes together in a satisfying way. Effective enough as a cautionary tale about willful ignorance and as a showcase for Will Smith — delivering a fine, understated performance as Omalu, the doctor who discovered CTE in former NFL players — the film is let down by its confused and cliche-riddled screenplay, which struggles mightily to take a complex story and finesse it to fit story beats it was never meant to hit.
With “Concussion” slated for a Christmas release, it’s an open question whether holiday moviegoers will be eager to line up for a film about an autopsy conductor who discovered reasons to feel very bad for enjoying America’s most popular sport, but Smith’s drawing power should exert a substantial pull. The actor puts his star wattage to clever use here, buttoning down but never attempting to hide his natural magnetism as a real-life character who’s a force of nature in his own way.
A soulful Nigerian immigrant (Smith nails the accent without ever calling undue attention to it), Omalu boasts an almost comically large collection of advanced degrees and certifications. He treats the bodies he dissects in a Pittsburgh coroner’s office as if they were living patients, speaking to them before the autopsy, and using brand-new knives to lovingly carve them apart while listening to Teddy Pendergrass. An outsider in the football-mad Pennsylvania city, he doesn’t think much of the name Mike Webster when the 50-year-old’s body turns up in the morgue.
As the longtime, Super Bowl-winning center for the Steelers, Webster (David Morse) was a local hero, yet after his retirement he started suffering from memory loss, depression and severe mood swings, eventually winding up homeless. Omalu is puzzled by how an otherwise healthy athlete could suffer such a dramatic psychological breakdown, and decides to run tests on his brain, even if it means paying for them out of his own pocket. What he discovers is shocking: a degree of neurological deterioration similar to Alzheimer’s disease.
Naming the disorder chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), and postulating that the thousands of head-on collisions endured in a pro football career are to blame, Omalu publishes his findings in a medical journal that attracts instant pushback from NFL officials. It isn’t long before more test cases start piling up and the NFL’s deflection efforts grow more intense, while Omalu eventually joins forces with Julian Bailes (an irregularly accented but nonetheless effective Alec Baldwin), a former Steelers team doctor who becomes a key co-advocate.
There’s more than enough material here for a detail-heavy medical procedural, and the repeated willingness shown by so many Americans to shoot the messengers bringing bad news about cherished institutions presents a potent subtext. (At first, Omalu naively believes his findings will be welcomed by the NFL, who will use them to make the game safer.) Yet “Concussion” never quite trusts its audience enough to dive down any interesting rabbit holes, and it stumbles when it attempts to flesh out Omalu’s personal life with scenes that work well enough on their own, but stop the pic’s momentum in its tracks. None of that is the fault of Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who brings a great deal of life and verve to her role as the good doctor’s wife, Prema, but whenever the film pauses to detail their courtship, it tends to lose sight of what it’s ultimately about.
And that’s unfortunate, considering the story is most affecting when it shines a spotlight on players like Justin Strzelczyk (Matthew Willig) and Dave Duerson (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who lost their lives while suffering from CTE. There’s something particularly gut-wrenching about seeing the game’s big men — the linesmen and tough tacklers who seem so indestructible on the field — reduced to stumbling around frightened and confused so soon after leaving it. Despite a few glancing lines of dialogue on the beauty of football, the NFL deservedly takes it on the chin here, and Landesman (“Parkland”) lands his most punishing blows by juxtaposing TV announcers gleefully cooing over big hits with footage of peewee-aged tykes going helmet-to-helmet.
The film is less successful, however, at detailing the consequences Omalu endured for telling his inconvenient truths. Aside from one rude phone call, rarely does Landesman actually show us what being a social pariah must have been like for Omalu, and some of the details he includes are puzzling. One scene shows Prema believing she’s being followed around town by a car, and cuts immediately to her suffering a miscarriage. Another sequence has FBI agents raid the office of Omalu’s boss, Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), lobbing vague threats at Omalu while they’re at it. If Landesman means to imply that the NFL is somehow behind the raid, he doesn’t even begin to make his case; and if he doesn’t, then it’s unclear what the scene is even doing here. (Likewise, casting Luke Wilson for a few blink-and-you-miss-him scenes as league commissioner Roger Goodell proves far more distracting than it’s worth.)
The film is sharply edited by William Goldenberg and well shot by d.p. Salvatore Totino, although James Newton Howard’s score starts with the dial tuned up to 11 and somehow keeps getting louder.