What’s most surprising about Concussion is that it doesn’t let the NFL off easy. Considering the league has its grubby, saccharine hands all over just about every aspect of American life, it’s fair to wonder if they’d strong-arm Columbia Pictures into making this a vapid puff piece with no lasting power. While Concussion doesn’t have the potency or depth of the Frontline PBS special “League of Denial,” it’s nevertheless a mostly effective look at an issue the NFL would just as soon sweep under the rug – even today. It’s also Will Smith’s best starring vehicle in years.
Smith plays Dr. Bennet Omalu, an American immigrant from Nigeria working in Pittsburgh. He’s a forensic neuropathologist whose unorthodox practices (speaking to the body prior to the autopsy, for example) test the patience of his co-workers. After the death of Steelers legend Mike Webster (David Morse), Omalu is tasked with finding the cause. In the months leading up to his passing, Webster had exhibited a variety of disturbing symptoms including intense paranoia, self-mutilation, and violent outbursts. Confused by his clean brain scans, Omalu orders further analysis on his own dime. What he uncovers becomes known as CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), a degenerative brain condition caused by repeated blows to the head. He takes his findings to the NFL, only to meet heavy resistance and efforts to discredit him completely.
Though overly melodramatic at times and absent the full details of the toll CTE really takes, Concussion is at its best when operating as an underdog story. To see a man with important, borderline common sense medical information get repeatedly shut down by the establishment resonates greatly from a narrative standpoint. Writer/director Peter Landesman’s (adapting in part from the GQ article “Game Brain”) screenplay is at times incendiary, particularly in a scene when the NFL blacklists Omalu from speaking at an annual convention about player health. It was only after Omalu went public that any sort of acknowledgement from the NFL took place. To this day they continue to downplay the causes and role of CTE in a game whose players only get faster and more powerful by the year.
After a string of bombs and failed Oscar bids, it’s nice to see Will Smith get back on track with a measured, compelling performance. Calmly intense and demanding action, Smith pretty much disappears into the role. The supporting cast is similarly excellent, highlighted by Albert Brooks, who continues to make every movie he’s involved with better. Providing rare moments of levity but equally serious in his support of Omalu’s research, Brooks is outstanding. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is under-utilized as the love interest, but makes an impact as the only other person who truly understands Omalu’s motives.
Concussion emerges as a solid primer to the biggest issue facing America’s most popular sport. It’s one that, if not properly acknowledged and acted upon, could jeopardize the league’s future and the game as we currently know it. That the film is as inflammatory and urgent as it is feels like a small miracle considering how easily the studio could have caved to the NFL’s unwieldy power and influence. “League of Denial,” with its in-depth medical explanations and illustrations of the true effects of CTE – the victims in Concussion come across as deranged caricatures, at times – is a fantastic companion piece. If nothing else, it’s a big step forward that the issue is getting the face time it deserves.
Studio: Columbia Pictures
Length: 123 Minutes
Rating: PG-13 for thematic material including some disturbing images, and language.
Theatrical Release: December 25, 2015
Directed by: Peter Landesman
Written by: Peter Landesman. Based in part on the GQ article “Game Brain” by Jeanne Marie Laskas.
Cast: Will Smith, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Albert Brooks, Alec Baldwin, Luke Wilson