Directed by: Peter Landesman
Written by: Peter Landesman (based on the GQ article “Game Brain” by Jeanne Marie Laskas
Starring: Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Albert Brooks, Gugu Mbatha-Raw
I spent most of last week watching Making a Murderer, so coming into the new Will Smith vehicle Concussion I was already pretty emotionally exhausted from watching people helplessly fight the powers that be. So, in a way, I was relieved that the film turned out to be a fairly dull affair and failed to get me any more riled up than I already was. Not that I don’t think Concussion has anything important to say – it certainly does – but it doesn’t create any real sense of urgency about the matter as much as it desperately tries.
Will Smith stars as Dr. Bennet Omalu, a well-educated and eccentric neuropathologist and coroner from Nigeria residing in Pittsburgh. After former Steelers centre Mike Webster, suffering from severe dementia, dies tragically from cardiac arrest, Dr. Omalu performs the autopsy only to find his reason for death particularly perplexing. Through a series of tests on Webster’s brain, Dr. Omalu discovers that the repetitive impacts on the head created severe brain damage in Webster that was unnoticeable until he was older. The disease was likely present in other former NFL players, so the good doctor decides to take on the NFL in a battle for the players’ safety.
There were a lot of little elements to the film’s plot and setup that I really appreciated. Dr. Omalu’s introduction is creative, perfectly capturing the character’s persona while giving us vital background information in an organic manner. I also appreciate the irony of Dr. Omalu’s situation, wanting so desperately to be accepted as an American, yet it’s his very un-americanness that allows him to do the right thing while others remain conflicted. Whenever I thought about some of the elements of the film individually, I had to figure out again why I got bored watching it.
The writing here simply fails to create real drama and instead becomes an unfocused mess. Dr. Omalu’s love interest feels tacked on, adding nothing but an opportunity for him to turn on his TV and actually watch football. Landesman attempts to fabricate conflict at times, particularly noticeably in a scene where Dr. Omalu and a colleague, Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), have an argument over who gets to present the information at an NFL concussion summit. Every once in awhile, someone pops in to offer some slightly racist quip about how Dr. Omalu is an uneducated hack and should go back to Africa, making sure that we remember that some people don’t like him as the NFL hovers over scenes in word but almost never in deed. Almost every moment where the film should come to a dramatic peak instead peters out in impotence, the only real scenes of tension coming from whether or not sick players will accidentally harm their doctors or family. We’re also not really given a way to engage properly with Dr. Omalu’s discoveries and are instead asked to take it at face value and exclaim, “Yay, he saw something in the microscope! I didn’t see it, but I’m glad he did!”
Smith’s performance as Dr. Omalu is worthy of some level of praise. It’s difficult to become accustomed to his Nigerian accent at first, but by the end I was mostly immersed. He gives the doctor a good-natured humour and ignorance, causing his immense intelligence to sometimes even catch the audience off guard while making him very likeable all the same. I don’t think it quite approaches Smith’s best roles, but the actor carries an innate charisma that can’t be overstated. It’s enjoyable seeing him in some more serious dramatic work again. His co-stars don’t really pick up the slack, though, leaving Smith to carry the film by himself. Alec Baldwin is somewhat typecast and can’t decide if he’s from Boston or Virginia, Albert Brooks is a less-menacing version of his character in Drive, and Luke Wilson phones it in as NFL executive Roger Goodell.
One element I really did appreciate about the film was how the supporting characters around Dr. Omalu embodied the bittersweetness of the discovery. These people love the sport, and they know that the changes required to save players may require neutering the game entirely. It’s a spark for discussion that captured some of my feelings about the issue. What do we need to do to protect players? Is it just a matter of making sure players are fully aware the risks they face for the future like competitors in combat sports? Is it ethical to support the NFL when they are willfully allowing their employees to be irreversibly harmed without their knowledge? I hope that the film is able to cause people to start asking these questions in spite of itself.
Concussion is unfortunately content to meander through the story without providing any felt danger or risk, hoping that Dr. Omalu can bear the weight of entertaining us the whole way through. It winds up a bland piece of filmmaking reminiscent of a dark and lackadaisical Hallmark TV movie. For all the talk of brain-shattering impacts, it lacks any concussive blow of its own.