Concussion is the kind of film with the lead character you expect around awards season – the kind that feels it sports an uplifting and poignant story/message like some regal kente cloth. They are confidently cast in a mould that will ostensibly appeal to the major award academies and look good on the best picture statuette. Think Spotlight, Lincoln or Selma.
Will Smith leads Concussion as Dr Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian forensic pathologist and neuropathologist who stumbles into the bad books of the American NFL following his discovery-ish of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in football players who took punishing blows to the head during their playing days. This film is written and directed by an award-winning investigative journalist, Peter Landesman, and his background kind of shows in this narrative which tries to focus on the stakes of the CTE expose. I reckon Landesman wishes he had stumbled onto this story back in 2002.
Concussion narrows in on Dr Omalu (Smith), who projects a certain humble arrogance when we first meet him. He is in court providing testimony in his professional capacity with a man’s life on the line. He, of course, sees the prudence in amusingly noting why he is fit to provide professional opine by listing his numerous qualifications including a degree in Music theory. I immediately bought him as Nigerian then – he didn’t even need the accent. These early scenes are just filler though. The crux of this film is in Omalu’s CTE findings which proved the existence of a degenerative brain disease resulting from the numerous violent head collisions in one of America’s premier sports.
There is an interesting cynicism that permeates this film as America and football lovers (ostensibly a tautology) react to Omalu’s findings. The Americans are not happy. The NFL feels threatened and basically, no one wants to believe the threat of CTE after Omalu’s diagnosis in the deceased NFL Hall of Famer, “Iron” Mike Webster (David Morse). The film indeed opens with Webster’s Hall of Fame induction speech. It is an obvious day of celebration but his induction speech slowly devolves into something chilling. “Its painful playing football” he says. “It’s not a natural thing” he adds.
Webster speaks like a war veteran, like a man who made it out of Vietnam and is lucky to tell the tale. The most chilling thing he says is, “All we have to do is finish the game. If we finish, we win.” It feels like a war platitude along the lines of; there are no winners in war, just the dead and the survivors. This scene almost establishes the film as a part parallel to the cost war for the more cynical minds like myself who start to overreach. Of course, football is nothing like war which is why Omalu cannot fathom why people walk onto a field to risk their lives like Webster and other harrowing football related casualties of CTE.
Omalu tries to get the NFL to act on his findings but it is never really clear what he wants. Does he want football banned? Does he want the sport reformed? He just wants to solve a problem we gather. That really wasn’t clear to me. Landesman appears only interested in throwing light on the risks NFL players run and there is no apparent endgame beyond that – a flaw that translates to Omalu’s character. The NFL, however, parades clear motives. They want Omalu and his research buried. They rubbish his research as an affront on an American culture and way of life.
The denials on the part of the NFL leadership reminded me of the “Seven Dwarfs #Tobacco” (who are referenced in this film) but I go again to my part war parallels. To hear the NFL talk about footballers and how they provide hundreds of thousands of jobs and millions in charity is like hearing someone justify military casualties in war and how the soldiers fight for freedom and the like. Again we fathom Landesman is just saying football isn’t that important – an unintentional sarcastic beat I will give the film credit for.
We never doubt CTE is a truly harrowing thing by the film’s end. We do not agree with the NFL’s stance and a people will be given another reason to despise them following their recent questionable gender politics. The film succeeds if its aim is to shame the NFL. It, however, wavers on other points. The screenplay isn’t focused or incisive enough to truly grip and audience. We never spend enough time with a CTE victim. Maybe the CTE victim we are supposed to connect with Morse as Webster but we only see him near his end. There is no proper appreciation of his loss. The other CTE victims are reduced to scenes of penurious desperation or crazy mumbling as their cognitive functions degenerate.
The core characters, whilst putting in strong work are quite two dimensional. Smith as Omalu cuts a naïve saint who upholds the truth – admirable but lacking core nuance. He is a portrait of conviction and is driven by his belief in justice because it is the American thing (*snickers*). There are more than enough monologues on why the truth matters here. On the supporting end, Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Prema, Omalu’s wife – insert “Behind every successful man is strong woman” cliché here. Alec Baldwin shows up as a former NFL team doctor who supports Omalu’s cause out of maybe guilt and then there’s Albert Brooks who I guess is playing himself at this point. He serves as Omalu’s mentor with an amusing sardonic tone and scowl akin to his role in A Most Violent year.
Like I said earlier, this film deals with an important subject and it is easy to ride with it. I just wish I was riding on a more tactful wave. Whilst the performances are strong, Omalu’s feats in this film come off as nothing more than an education. We are not truly gripped. It is just a scientific and logical argument as it were.