Peter Landesman’s “Concussion” tells an important and fascinating story in the most conservative way. It’s a showcase for a talented group of actors more than anything else and while there’s nothing to really dislike about it there isn’t a whole lot to love in terms of structure and presentation.
Based on the GQ article “Game Brain” by Jeanne Marie Laskas, “Concussion” follows pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu, (Will Smith) a Nigerian immigrant currently based in Pittsburg. It’s established early on that he doesn’t do things the normal way; in fact it’s explicitly stated in dialogue. When he does autopsies he listens to music via headphones and talks to his “clients” to get to know them, which causes him to take his sweet time and annoy his co-workers. It’s through this curious fascination with the dead that leads him to Mike Webster, a hall of fame football Center who died in shame (suffering from dementia and plunging into financial ruin).
To cut right to the chase Omalu uncovers a shocking truth: playing football long-term can cause serious long-term brain damage. As more former football players die from similar circumstances Omalu, with the help of his superior Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks) and former Pittsburg Steelers team doctor Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), works to bring this realization to light, a realization the NFL has been covering up. The picture is a classic “individual-takes-on-a-corrupt-system drama.” Omalu is an outsider both to America and the sport (he doesn’t know a thing about football). Since its inception in nineteen twenty, the NFL has evolved not only into a major business entity but a staple of American society and culture. When Wecht tells Omalu that the NFL “owns a day of the week” there’s something almost staggering about hearing that.
The movie focuses on Omalu and his investigation while the actual NFL stays primarily in the shadows. It could be argued that “Concussion” lets the NFL off a little too easy but at the same time, had the movie been more scathing and critical I don’t think it would be entirely genuine. Omalu isn’t trying to attack or totally vilify the NFL nor is he trying to ban football; instead he simply wants awareness and acknowledgment on their part that concussions are a very serious and real issue.
Smith does his best work here in a while. Based on his past few credits (“After Earth,” “Men in Black 3”) I realize that’s not saying much, but in “Concussion” he gives an assured authentic performance--playing Omalu with humility and humor as well as a slight undertone of arrogance and self-righteousness. Brooks, Baldwin and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Prema Mutiso (Omalu’s girlfriend and eventual wife) also turn in strong work even if they’re not in the movie nearly enough (especially Brooks).
Landesman’s direction is competent and overall the picture is more focused than his debut “Parkland.” Yet “Concussion” never quite pops off the screen the way it should; Landesman’s screenplay is procedural to a fault. For most of the running time I sat and watched from a distance, never getting totally absorbed in the material, never feeling tense or worked up, even as Omalu digs deeper and the N.F.L. gets angrier. There’s very little surprise-- even as someone who knew nothing about Omalu or this story (aside from very basic knowledge that football causes long-term brain damage) I could sense every big turn and revelation well before it arrived. Additionally the film suffers from too much obvious cliché dialogue (at one point Mutiso says to Omalu right before he first discovers the truth about concussions: “Are you afraid of what you will find…or what you wont find?”) that further distances the viewer from the material. All in all, Landesman spells things out a little too clearly, not leaving much for us to think about. The ending is particularly unsatisfying, wrapping things up too neatly.
On top of all that, as good as Mbatha-Raw is, she isn’t given a lot to do. Once Perma becomes Omalu’s wife her role is significantly minimized, showing up every now and then to give him cliché motivational talks. Perma becomes more of a background character, which in turn lessens the impact of a major third act moment involving her character. It’s a moment that should be devastating but instead we’re left cold.
In the end, “Concussion” is a perfectly decent, harmless film; one that you can rent a few months from now and forget about. That being said, due to the importance of the story and subject matter one can’t help but be mildly disappointed with Landesman’s film.