Equal parts damning and infuriating, “Concussion” can be appreciated for being that rare movie that takes on the business/game that has utterly swallowed American sport.
Here is a film that goes after the National Football League, that shows game footage and uses actual team logos in telling the story of the NFL’s dubious handling of a problem it has known about for decades — traumatic brain injuries caused by the collisions on the field.
Conspiracy-buff filmmaker Peter Landesman (“Kill the Messenger”) tells this story through the heroic, foreign-born pathologist who discovered CTE —Chronic traumatic encephalopathy — a degenerative brain disorder caused by repeated blows to the head — concussions.
Will Smith plays Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian over-achiever who treats his dead patients with the same care he would treat living ones. He’s a neuro-pathologist, a coroner. And he talks to the dead.
“OK Rachel,” he’ll say, “I need your help.”
Cute. Cuter than cute. Drives his Pittsburgh coroner colleagues crazy cute.
His boss (Albert Brooks) piles on the adorability, joking that Omalu (“DOCTOR Omalu”) needs to find an outside interest, a girlfriend, “be less of an artist” on the job.
But a detail-oriented artist and a scientist is what is called for when Omalu tries to figure out what caused beloved Hall of Fame center “Iron Mike” Webster of the Steelers to go mad and die at 50. Omalu pays, out of his own pocket, to get Webster’s brain sliced and put on slides. And he discovers something awful.
Omalu is depicted as being idealistic and naive, handy arrows in Smith’s quiver. That lightens the story, somewhat. But sterner stuff is called for as Omalu takes on the mightiest corporation in American sports, trying to show the NFL his findings, trying to get them to “work together” on a solution to a problem he has given a name to. More than tears and a lightly-accented “Tell the TRUTH!” is called for as he is rebuffed, threatened and intimidated — by the league, by the fanatical fans, by colleagues.
And then he finds an ally (Alec Baldwin).
Smith is the one actor to pull a Golden Globe nomination out of this film, and that’s an injustice. His performance borders on adorable, as Omalu over-explains everything, enjoys the sound of his own voice a tad much and clumsily courts a Kenyan (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) his church fixes him up with. I kept wondering how far Chewitel Ejiofor would have knocked this character out of the park.
David Morse turns himself into Webster, a lovable hulk we see inducted into the Hall of Fame in the opening scene, a physical and emotional wreck a short while later when we see him, living in a truck, huffing ammonia and ranting, twitching and flailing at what is going on in his head. It’s a stunning transformation and performance.
Eddie Marsan gives the movie gravitas as a rock star brain surgeon who recognizes — instantly — that Omalu is onto something.
“You have my attention.”
Richard T. Jones and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje are impressive as ex-players Andre Waters and Dave Duerson, high-profile victims who helped push this story into the headlines, despite the NFL’s best efforts.
The film is on shaky ground as it veers into persecution and some paranoid “Silkwood” touches.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that this “inspired by a true story” conflates events and make suppositions that history and in some cases medical statistics don’t back up. Suggesting the FBI could be talked into threatening the doctors after the first study was published is not true. And the halo Landesman puts on Omalu is not without a hint of tarnish.
When you have characters in your script who note that if you’re going after an institution “that owns a day of the week,” you’d better get it right, the same holds true for your movie.
But the bigger picture, that the NFL has known concussions are doing deadly things to its athletes and fought, for decades, to cover it up, holds up. The late Coach George Allen made this “inconvenient truth” a personal crusade after his career ended. And yet little — especially equipment, his personal push (he wanted helmets padded on the OUTside) — has changed, even as the, game and the conditions under which is it played have grown more violent.
“Concussion” will open and close without making much of an impact on a sport that is generating enough money in gambling, TV and merchandising rights to purchase its own country. But see it, watch Smith/Omalu shake a jar with a peach and a little liquid in it to illustrate what happens to the brain during a blow to the head, and you might re-think what sport you let your children play, and how much of your time to donate to this business as sport “any given Sunday.”
MPAA Rating:PG-13 for thematic material including some disturbing images, and language
Cast: Will Smith, Albert Brooks, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, David Morse.
Credits: Written and directed by Peter Landesman. A Sony release.
Running time: 2:03