Concussion

Concussion
Photo: ©2015 Columbia Pictures

Director(s): Peter Landesman

Writer(s): Peter Landesman

Cast: Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Arliss Howard, Paul Reiser, Luke Wilson, Adewale Akinnoye-Agbage, Mike O'Malley, David Morse and Albert Brooks

Reviewed by: Ian Evans on

Release Date(s)

Dec 25, 2015 - Wide

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For some, the National Football League is a religion. As one character in the the true-life story Concussion quips, the NFL owns a day of the week that used to belong to the church. Its followers may see football as religion, but to the NFL brass and the team owners, football is a massive multi-billion dollar a year sports and entertainment enterprise. Anyone who threatens to sideline the sport can expect to get pushed back.

Enter Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith), a Nigerian-born Pittsburgh pathologist who treats the dead on his table with respect and dignity as he asks their lifeless bodies to help him discover what killed them. His latest cadaver is former Steelers centre Mike Webster (a wonderful David Morse) who we see in earlier scenes spiralling down from a Hall of Fame speech to a solvent-huffing man with serious mental issues. While others in the office warn Omalu not to mess with the legend’s legacy, he feels compelled to find out why a man of fifty would exhibit all these issues. His autopsy and subsequent research leads him to discover a new condition, CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), a condition he believes came from the estimated 70,000 hits to the head Webster suffered in his lifetime.

Backed by the head of his department, Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks) and eventually aided by a former Steelers staffer, Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), Omalu expected the NFL to accept his findings and perhaps enact protective protocols. Instead, he was greeted by a campaign of intimidation, denial and vilification by both the league and its fans. Even as player suicides, like Justin Strzelczyk (Matthew Willig) and Andre Waters (Richard T. Jones) back his findings, the NFL keeps the wagons circled.

One problem with the film is that writer-director Peter Landesman is faced with a real-life story without an ending and so after a while the dramatic tension just sort of peters out. Omalu’s findings didn’t cause the NFL to adopt really strong measures or design new equipment. We just the postscript that some players settled with the league and a committee is studying the issue, which, of course, is corporate-speak for “people like big hits so we can’t get rid of them.”

After some recent misfires, Smith is given a role that reminds us how willing we are to follow him if he has a good character to play. He’s at ease in this performance and his Nigerian accent doesn’t throw you out of the moment. He plays Omalu with strength, determination and dignity. Albert Brooks, sporting a somewhat off-putting bald cap, grounds and supports Smith’s characters, while still being able to inject some levity into the proceedings. Alec Baldwin captures Dr. Bailes’ conflicted mind. Here’s a man who loves, breathes, and worked for football, but also a man whose seen many friends enter a cycle of self-injury and dementia. We wonder if he can take Omalu’s findings and save football, because deep inside we know he fears it will hurt it. Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Omalu’s border-turned-wife, and though she’s a strong actress, she’s given the task of giving her husband the, well, half-time locker room speeches that keep his head in the game. Paul Reiser is in the opening credits as the NFL’s Dr. Elliot Pellman, but except for a brief scene, he’s not really given anything to do. It’s been rumoured that dramatic license scenes opposite Luke Wilson as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell were cut in order to prevent any NFL criticism the film was being too fictional in its portrayal of the NFL head honchos.

Landesman shows the NFL as a group focused solely on the bottom line and without true concern for the men who don the uniform. Moviegoers who love the NFL will probably whitewash the results with a belief that their beloved sport is looking into CTE. Their loyalty and love won’t be dented though, because as Brook’s character points out, fans blindly accept their tax dollars being spent on stadiums for wealthy teams, even as their city services are being cut.

Perhaps it’s the fans who need their heads examined.

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