Playing pro football hurts. Unfortunately for moviegoers, so does a brutish lack of subtlety. And Concussion’s message is delivered with less delicate grace than an NFL defensive tackle spearing a middle-school quarterback.
Will Smith tops the bill, playing the role of Pittsburgh coroner Dr. Bennet Omalu. His performance has sparked a veritable bonanza of Oscar talk, and it’s not unwarranted —much like his fellow cast members, Smith is superb.
Although this David and Goliath-like drama, in which a team of medical professionals battle the corporate juggernaut that is the NFL, stirs up its fair share of emotions, a lack of shrewd storytelling detracts from Concussion’s ultimate implications.
To the surprise of no one who watches the NFL, repeated cranial blows can have a devastating impact on a player’s long-term health. Dare I say, the immediate aftermath of taking a hit from a 320-pound linebacker won’t feel too good, either.
Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian medical mastermind, was the first person to identify a condition suffered by a slew of ex-football players. He called it Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). The NFL wasn’t too thrilled to hear about it. For a sustained period of time, it was hell-bent on debunking the condition. The Commissioner and his representatives sure as heck wanted to keep it quiet.
It took the death of former Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster (David Morse), to finally begin to expose CTE. The team’s beloved center for eighteen long, grueling seasons, Webster died in curious circumstances.
Established in the film’s opening scene as a kind-hearted nonconformist, Omalu wants answers. He digs deep into Mike Webster’s brain to find them, and follows suit with several more ex-football players who’ve prematurely perished.
Unfortunately for Omalu, besmirching the good name of America’s favorite sport is frowned upon. Tremendously. Omalu soon finds himself at the mercy of corporate America, his co-workers, and even ex-players. Pressure and intensity mounts. But dedicated to unearthing the truth, Omalu refuses to give up his fight.
Concussion is the cinematic equivalent of an end-of-season, dead rubber Thursday Night Football game.
Concussion is written and directed by Peter Landesman, a former investigative journalist who worked in the Kosovo, Rwanda, and Afghanistan warzones. In other words, the man is no stranger to intense conflict. The film does a reasonable enough job of delivering it, especially during its first half.
Viewers are “treated” to agonizing replays of some the NFL’s most brutal tackles and hits, many of which are accompanied by announcers reveling in the brain-blistering carnage.
Even the most intellectually barren football player must figure that a career-long bludgeoning of one’s body will bring about injury. But developing CTE — dementia and depression among its long list of symptoms — is something that every player should be fully aware of. Such is Dr. Omalu’s suggestion; the National Football League (or at least, its suit-clad representatives) swiftly dismisses such “unproven” twaddle. The game’s immense financial stakes heighten the NFL’s desperate need to bury any potential blemish to its reputation (and as a result, its revenue).
But once Concussion is done dishing up dirt on the NFL, it switches focus to personal relationships, and things start to get rather … meandering.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Dr. Omalu’s love interest, and despite a striking performance alongside Will Smith, her character feels rather shoehorned into the goings-on. Far more interesting is the doc’s relationship with a former Pittsburgh Steelers physician (Alec Baldwin, excellent as always). Ravaged by guilt, he elects to assist Omalu’s quest to expose the serious and potentially deadly symptoms of CTE. The dynamic between Smith and Baldwin is tense and captivating, yet takes something of a back seat to allow development of a lackluster love story.
Concussion is the cinematic equivalent of an end-of-season, dead rubber Thursday Night Football game: Fleetingly fun, intermittently intriguing, but once the final whistle has blown, it won’t be sticking around in the memory for long.
Not least if you’ve ever played competitive football…
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