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Review: Concussion (2015)

Concussion (2015)

Directed by: Peter Landesman

Premise: Based on a true story. Pathologist Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) discovers that the head trauma experienced by professional football players causes them serious brain damage. The NFL attempts to discredit Omalu and his research.

What Works: The story behind Concussion is a troubling one for American culture. As one of the characters says in the movie, the NFL owns a day of the week in much the same way that the church used to and the sport is as engrained and revered in American life as religious organizations. That gives the conflict of the movie some inherent stakes that are in some ways more impressive and imposing that the church abuse scandal dramatized in Spotlight. As a narrative, Concussion pulls from multiple story genres. It is firstly a procedural in which Dr. Bennet Omalu makes a terrible discovery and goes through the process of collecting evidence and publishing his findings. Much of that happens in the first part of Concussion, which is the better half of the movie. Concussion is also an underdog story. This is a movie about a man who has little standing in society but sees an injustice and refuses to be silent about it and his personal and professional life are upended for his troubles. In addition to all of that, Concussion is also an immigrant story. Omalu is from Nigeria and he is a stranger to American culture; as a result it takes him awhile to see the bigger implications of his work and there is an effective tension between Omalu’s desire to fit into American culture and the way his research on football injuries puts him at odds with that culture. Bennet Omalu is played by Will Smith and this is one of Smith’s better performances. In recent years, Smith has become a quieter and more nuanced actor and he channels his likability through a cerebral character. As part of the film’s immigration narrative, Omalu meets a Kenyan woman played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw and they eventually fall in love. Their romance is very sweet and gives the film an intimate human center that complements the bigger issues of this story.

What Doesn’t: The matter of NFL players and traumatic brain injury was previously addressed in the Frontline documentary League of Denial. That film laid out the issue much more broadly and completely than Concussion. One of the problems of this film is inherent to the scope of its story. As shown in League of Denial, Dr. Omalu’s work established the link between football and brain injuries. However, a lot more work was done by other people, namely Dr. Ann McKee and her associates, who went further in establishing the severity of the problem. Concussion gives the false impression that Omalu took on the NFL virtually all by himself. Concussion also underwhelms as a dramatization. For one thing, the musical score by James Newton Howard is overbearing and micromanages the viewer’s emotions rather than supporting the drama onscreen. As a drama, Concussion also falls short in comparison to League of Denial. Although it was a documentary, League of Denial was more successful in telling a coherent and dramatically satisfying story than Concussion. This film begins well but it runs out of momentum in its second half. The problems are baked into the facts of Omalu’s story. Once he leaves Pittsburgh, the pressure is off and so the tension of the story fizzles out. His investigation into traumatic brain injury doesn’t come to a conclusive ending and the filmmakers fail to devise one. As a result, the picture meanders through its latter half and the filmmakers don’t seem to know where the movie is going. There are various threads throughout the movie about medical ethics, the power of professional sports, and American identity but Concussion fails to pull all of its various themes together.

Bottom Line: Concussion is an acceptable drama. It largely comes across like a television network movie-of-the-week but it’s well acted, competently done, and generally engaging. However, viewers should check out the documentary League of Denial, which can be found online.

Episode: #576 (January 3, 2016)