Dir: Peter Landesman. US. 2015. 122mins
It took a foreigner who had no interest in the National Football League, America’s most popular game, to expose the truth about the traumatic brain injuries suffered by its former players. That irony is at the heart of Concussion, a heavy-handed true-life drama that nonetheless is quite articulate about power and corruption in the United States — and how greedy, money-making monoliths make outsiders of us all. Fuelled by a quietly morally outraged performance by Will Smith, this muckraking film can be conventional in its execution, but if the telling leaves much to be desired, the story itself is plainly affecting.
Landesman is nicely understated when using the NFL’s cover-up as a microcosm for the way American society tosses aside people it no longer considers valuable
After debuting at AFI Fest, Concussion will open in the US on December 25, when there will be no shortage of high-profile award-season pictures, everything from Joy to The Revenant to The Hateful Eight. This fact-based account of the Nigerian doctor who uncovered why so many football players were suffering mental collapses and committing suicide will be of interest in America — especially considering that NFL fans have become well-versed recently about the dangers of sports-related concussions through news stories and special investigative reports. Smith’s marquee value will help commercially, as will respectful reviews, but the this Sony release could be a modest holiday player, earning solid but not spectacular grosses despite the timeliness of the subject matter.
Concussion takes place in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where Dr. Bennet Omalu (Smith), a soft-spoken neuropathologist, performs autopsies for the county. The film begins in 2002, when beloved Pittsburgh Steeler great Mike Webster (David Morse) is found dead, his life spiralling out of control for unexplained reasons in his later years. Examining Webster’s brain, Omalu begins to believe that football-related head injuries were to blame, even though the NFL has long insisted that its scientists have disproven such claims.
Undeterred, Omalu keeps pressing, winning the support of the Steelers’ former team physician, Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), who knows that Omalu is right — and that the league will stop at nothing to discredit his work.
Written and directed by Peter Landesman (and based on the 2009 GQ article “Game Brain” by Jeanne Marie Laskas), Concussion has some of the same problems as his feature debut, the 2013 John F. Kennedy assassination drama Parkland in that the characterisations can be a bit stiff and the pace a tad laborious. But although the film can overplay its hand thematically, Concussion gets a lot of mileage from exploring the obvious inequalities in American life — observations that are all the more acute because they come from the perspective of a once-adoring foreigner.
As played by Smith, Omalu has a timid sweetness, the doctor hiding behind his thick Nigerian accent and deferential, friendly manner. But as the film rolls along, Smith reveals another side to the character: a nervous outsider who dreamed of coming to America as a boy and desperately wants to be accepted now that he’s living in the States. When Omalu diagnoses what he’ll call CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), he’s naïve enough to believe that the NFL will be grateful to him for getting to the bottom of this mystery. Instead, he only invites harassment, anger and intimidation.
Smith’s calm elegance makes Omalu’s shock palpable. The character’s crusade becomes not about bringing down the NFL — he doesn’t watch the sport and has little knowledge about the game — but from being offended that the league and its leaders have acted so shamefully by hiding the truth. He’s aggrieved specifically because their actions run counter to his own rosy beliefs about the ideals that America is supposed to represent. Smith walks a delicate tightrope, portraying Omalu as optimistic and decent, not dense and gullible. And even if Concussion paints Omalu simplistically on occasion, it doesn’t diminish his central argument: why would an organisation so cravenly hide the damage its game was doing instead of being forthright?
Landesman can overreach for dramatic effect. (A very mild car chase inexplicably leads to tragedy, and a few dialogue-heavy scenes are filled with on-the-nose exposition.) But he’s nicely understated when using the NFL’s cover-up as a microcosm for the way American society tosses aside people it no longer considers valuable.
Omalu believes that his research is being smeared because he’s an African who doesn’t have American citizenship, but as we learn, skin colour factors little in the NFL’s thought process. Whether black or white, those in authority are simply trying to suppress those who threaten their supremacy, and Concussion illustrates convincingly that most of its characters are in the same position as Omalu, powerless peons who can be easily pushed aside unless they rise up to fight back.
Those supporting players are largely portrayed by character actors, and some (like Baldwin and Morse) are compelling in underwritten roles. Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars as Prema, a Kenyan woman newly arrived in America who becomes Omalu’s wife and confidant, and while she has to contend with being the Sympathetic Love Interest, she conveys the same soulful grace that Smith exudes.
As for Albert Brooks, he has a gruff good time as Omalu’s mentor at the country coroner’s office, providing Concussion with just the right amount of sarcasm to counterbalance the tasteful earnestness elsewhere. Landesman’s film may not be scintillating drama, but it aches with muted anger, and his cast makes sure to keep the proceedings at a consistent simmering boil.
Production companies: Columbia Pictures, LStar Capital, Village Roadshow Pictures, Scott Free, The Shuman Company, Cara Films, Cantillon Company
Worldwide distribution: Sony Pictures, www.sonypictures.com
Producers: Ridley Scott, Giannina Scott, David Wolthoff, Larry Shuman, Elizabeth Cantillon
Executive producers: Michael Schaefer, David Crockett, Ben Waisbren, Bruce Berman, Greg Basser
Screenplay: Peter Landesman, based on the GQ article “Game Brain” by Jeanne Marie Laskas
Cinematography: Salvatore Totino
Production design: David Crank
Editor: William Goldenberg
Music: James Newton Howard
Main Cast: Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Arliss Howard, Paul Reiser, Luke Wilson, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, David Morse, Albert Brooks