When Dr Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) performs an autopsy on former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster (David Morse), he is astounded to find that his brain appears healthy. How could a man who had seemingly lost his mind, have a healthy brain? Dr Omalu decides to dig deeper, and what he finds has huge ramifications on both his personal and professional life, and the NFL. Concussion is reviewed at the jump.
Based on the article “Game Brain” by Jeanne Marie Laskas, Concussion is about the discovery of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), a brain disorder caused by the long-term effects of repeated blows to the head. Nigerian-born pathologist Dr Omalu discovers the disorder after performing autopsies on former NFL professional football players, some who had died by committing suicide. When Dr Omalu brings the condition to the attention of the NFL, he is shut down, threatened, and attempts are made to discredit him and his work.
Concussion is a mess of a film, often unfocused and a little padded, but there is a terrific story here. The risks Dr Omalu and others such as Dr Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks) and Dr Julian Barnes (Alec Baldwin) took were not insignificant, and the ramifications of their work was far-reaching. NFL is a multi billion dollar organisation and to Dr Omalu’s surprise, they don’t take being told that football causes death particularly well. Scenes showing Omalu fearing for his personal safety, and the never-ending abusive phone calls are particularly tense. The film strays into Dr Omalu’s personal life too often, and scenes showing his relationship with Prema Mutiso (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) are among the weakest aspects in the film, poorly written and overly earnest. I would have liked to have seen more of the ‘closed door’ NFL’s reactions, to get a better understanding of how they were managing (and denying) the doctor’s findings.
Will Smith is at his best here, somewhat playing against type as a modest and sensitive man. We’re used to seeing Smith in energetic roles, with his charisma levels dialed up to full throttle, so it was both interesting, and immensely satisfying to see such a wonderful performance in an understated role. Alec Baldwin is also good in another understated role, playing a former Steelers team doctor who supports Dr Omalu and his findings. There’s no crazy shouting or grandstanding from him, simply a thoughtful performance of a man who has an interesting perspective, with one foot in the NFL and one foot in science.
The score is overbearing at times which is a shame because the story at the heart of the film has more than enough emotion to draw you in. It’s crazy to think what these players risk in the name of money, entertainment, and American values. Football is about as American as you can get, but is it really worth the potential health complications? For millions of people and billions of dollars, the answer is a resounding yes.
By Sam McCosh
Director: Peter Landesman
Writer(s): Peter Landesman (screenplay), Jeanne Marie Laskas (GQ article “Game Brain”)
Starring: Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Albert Brooks, Gugu Mbatha-Raw
Runtime: 123 minutes
Release date(s): Australia: February 18, 2016