Film Review: ‘Concussion’

Will Smith Concussion
Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

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.

Film Review: 'Concussion'

Reviewed at AFI Fest (Centerpiece Gala), Los Angeles, Nov. 10, 2015. MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 121 MIN.

Production

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures presentation, in association with LStar Capital and Village Roadshow Pictures, of a Scott Free, Shuman Co., Cara Films, Cantillon Co. production. Produced by Ridley Scott, Giannina Scott, David Wolthoff, Larry Shuman, Elizabeth Cantillon. Executive producers, Michael Schaefer, David Crockett, Ben Waisbren, Bruce Berman, Greg Basser.

Crew

Directed, written by Peter Landesman, based on the GQ article “Game Brain” by Jeanne Marie Laskas. Camera (color), Salvatore Totino; editor, William Goldenberg; music, James Newton Howard; production designer, David Crank; costume designer, Dayna Pink; art director, Tom Frohling; sound, Lee Orloff, Jim Emswiller; supervising sound editor, Dave McMoyler; re-recording mixers, Christian P. Minkler, Michael Minkler; visual effects supervisor, Jamie Dixon; assistant director, Vincent Palmo; casting, Lindsay Graham, Mary Vernieu.

With

Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Arliss Howard, Paul Reiser, Luke Wilson, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, David Morse, Matthew Willig, Albert Brooks.

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  1. p shanaberg says:

    I have to wonder about negative reviewers of this film. I think it’s one of the best of the year! Such a shame. A disgrace that this movie was not more successful. It’s not about football. It’s about what’s gone terribly wrong with America. It’s about capitalism run amok. It’s about so called “job creators”. And it’s about the disgraceful denial of the truth in favor of commerce. At least that what I see in it and it makes me want to cry and rage. And it’s about an American hero who was not even an American but everything that makes America great. In spite of itself.

  2. Concussion says:

    This film is fantastic. i love it.

  3. Antoine Saad says:

    Why is there negativity on this review? Are you getting money from the NFL? The film is about bringing light to a real issue. Life threatening brain trauma. With real scientific research to prove the claims. Do you care about the real people who have suffered from CTE? And people suffer from it today not knowing it. This is bigger then the Dr who discovered CTE and bigger then the NFL. The film was portrayed as good as it could explaining the science behind CTE, and didn’t get to caught up in the life of the Dr who discovered it. Brain trauma is the issue. Along with the lack of acknowledgement with this serious life threatening issue so people can make money off a game. Have a heart. Open your mind. This is bigger then just another movie. More research more funding to address CTE.

  4. Sickoftheleft says:

    This is really “Will Smith vs American Society” .. Funny how apparently concussion only happen in football, but not in Soccer,Boxing,MMA,Hockey, Wrestling, The Military…This movie has more to do with attacking a male dominated pro-American sport than about highlighting head injuries. If the people who made “Concussion” really cared then they’d highlight the epidemic of concussions in girls soccer and cheer-leading or the other sports I mentioned or how it’s a problem in the military(along with the missing limbs etc)

  5. Hollywood Mark says:

    How is Landesman still working. One flop after another. Run out of New York for shoddy journalism at the NY Times and immediately he is directing Parkland for Playtone. Movie bombs. Cost $10 mill – grossed $622 grand. Kill The Messenger he wrote/produced and that lost money. Cost 5 mill – grossed 2 mil. Now they give him Concussion? Budget $35 million! WTF does this guy have going on?

  6. mizz4four2 says:

    I am born and bred Nigerian living in Nigeria and we sound nothing like Smith did in the movie. He didn’t ‘nail’ any accent, Variety. I’m not impressed.

  7. Crystal Payne says:

    On my soapbox! I have seen the preview for Concussion now twice, and I am boycotting it! There is a part that refers to football players as warriors, and this appalls me! Warriors are our servicemen and woman who fight to defend our country and help maintain our rights as well to help others. They do this out of loyalty to our country and for the love of family and friends, not for fame and money! Their lives are in jeopardy, they make very little money, are separated from family and friends, and don’t live in the best of conditions. Some are lost to their families forever, while some come back with missing limbs or PTS. Yet, they still sign-up knowing the possibilities. They don’t have people asking them for their autographs or t-shirts with their names on them. No one asks them to do commercials for money because of their service. Once a year we celebrate these people on Veteran’s Day, but would you know who they are if they weren’t in uniform?

    • Grrg says:

      I understand what you’re trying to get at. But that has been going on for years. My grandfather fought in world war two for this country, then had to come back to a segregated America that told him he wasn’t good enough use certain restrooms or eat at certain restaurants. Both of my uncles never recovered from nam. My older brother went to Iraq earned himself a career when he got out and still gets harassment from local police for no reason at all. It’s silly. As sad as all of that it is, its just a part of of life. Those veterans deal with it. Maybe you should learn how to, to.

  8. Emmanuel says:

    Will Smith Does NOT nail the Accent and I really wish people would stop saying. Its bad. really really bad. It doesnt sound like any of the numerous accents anywhere in English speaking west Africa. Not any Ghanaian accent , not liberian and certainly not Nigerian. because hollywood is too lazy to tell the difference ( and the differences are great) don’t think 180 million Nigerians can’t.

  9. Kith says:

    This has GREAT potential. I hope it as good as it seems.

  10. 85wzen says:

    The film is less successful, however, at detailing the consequences Omalu endured for telling his inconvenient truths.
    ———————
    Here it is…. this is where they probably took out quite a lot over at Sony. Not like the reviewer here will know what Sony decided to take out.

    Has Mr. Omalu written a book yet? Hopefully that is next.

    Still, thematically the Script sounds troubled like so many Hollywood Productions, no one knows what an editor is because no one there knows what a SCREENWRITER does anymore…

    But that’s what happens when you fire all your Elders and hire a bunch of Agents to run the show…

    Remember that?

  11. Kim says:

    I think you are over-estimating Smith’s drawing power, especially in an off-brand movie. Focus didn’t do too well and After Earth was a flop. Before that, Seven Pounds, his attempt at drama, also flopped. So, starring in a movie in which he both sports an accent, suppresses his natural charisma AND takes on our national pastime does not bode well for box-office.

    • Mitch says:

      Very strong points, Kim. But there are a LOT of football fans that will see this film, and it has a chance. Love all your points thought, well-though out.

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