“Are you ready for some repetitive brain trauma?!” Academy Award nominees Will Smith, Alec Baldwin and Albert Brooks star in Concussion.
Cast of Characters:
Dr. Bennet Omalu – Will Smith
Dr. Julian Bailes – Alec Baldwin
Prema Mutiso – Gugu Mbatha-Raw
Dr. Joseph Maroon – Arliss Howard
Dr. Elliot Pellman – Paul Reiser
Roger Goodell – Luke Wilson
Dave Duerson – Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje
Daniel Sullivan – Mike O’Malley
Mike Webster – David Morse
Dr. Cyril H. Wecht – Albert Brooks
Director – Peter Landesman
Screenplay – Peter Landesman
Based on the article “Game Brain” by Jeanne Marie Laskas
Producer – Ridley Scott, Giannina Scott, David Woltroff, Larry Shuman & Elizabeth Cantillon
Rated PG-13 for thematic material including some disturbing images, and language
Following the death of former Pittsburgh Steelers legend Mike Webster (David Morse), Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith), the pathologist performing Webster’s autopsy, discovers a disorder that will shake up the sports world: Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). As more cases arise of former NFL players showing symptoms similar to Webster’s, Omalu’s concerns grow over the game of football and its connection to CTE; however, his desire to have his concerns heard will not be met without a fight from the heads of the National Football League.
Concussion isn’t just timely due to the Superbowl being six weeks away, but also ’cause of the recent tragic deaths of former NFL players Andre Waters, Dave Duerson, Terry Long, Justin Strzelczyk and Hall-of-Famers Mike Webster and Junior Seau. All said players have died within the past 10-15 years (five of which were suicides), and more importantly, all have been posthumously diagnosed with CTE.
The NFL’s concussion issue isn’t an easy one to answer. You’re never gonna ban the NFL (and as a fan of the game, that’s a stupid suggestion, one that might as well lead to the banning of boxing which is just as brutal a sport), and I don’t share Omalu’s concern that kids under 18 shouldn’t be permitted to play football. But it’s also foolish to say there isn’t a concussion problem in the league, even if the solution isn’t as clear-cut as everyone wishes it could be. Likewise, writer/director Peter Landesman’s Concussion also acknowledges the ever-growing problem within the game, but doesn’t go so far as providing a definitive answer as to what should be done.
Concussion is at its strongest when it focuses on Omalu’s research that would lead to his discover of CTE, and his fight to get his findings heard. Landesman’s approach is one that thankfully doesn’t play it safe or sugarcoat the attempts the NFL made to deny Omalu’s work, even if its “little man vs. the big corrupt system” narrative gets a little more melodramatic than it needs to be (threatening calls play like they belong in When a Stranger Calls and a scene involving Omalu’s pregnant wife trying to elude a tailing car comes off as absurd). Despite these overly dramatic missteps, Omalu’s path toward his important medical discovery makes for a compelling piece of drama.
The film’s primary stumbling block is what differentiates a good film like itself from a great film like Spotlight. Where Tom McCarthy’s film followed its investigative journey with razor-sharp focus, Concussion‘s romantic subplot between Omalu and his eventual wife is given too much time which reduces the overall impact of the film’s conflict (Gugu Mbatha-Raw is a talented actress, but she unfortunately gets nothing more to do than dish out one too many “Don’t give up!” speeches to her husband).
As Dr. Omalu, a hero who’s fully aware that become a hero means creating some enemies along the way, Will Smith goes all-in and gives his best performance since The Pursuit of Happyness. Those worried about whether his faux-Nigerian accent would turn out to be a distraction need not worry. Smith’s transformation is credible, applying his trademark charisma to a more restrained, modulated effort than we’ve gotten from him before. Whether he’ll land his third Best Actor nod as the buzz he’s getting assumes he will remains to be seen, but he’s fully deserving of it if his name gets listed as one of the five nominees.
Though Smith is the big performance draw here, save a woefully miscast Luke Wilson as Roger Goodell (his appearance is nothing more than an extended cameo, so it’s not exactly a deal breaker), he’s given some solid backup from a terrific supporting cast. Alec Baldwin is terrific as a former NFL team doctor who sees both the barbarity and the beauty of the game, but is filled with regret over not doing enough back when he could’ve. The invaluable Albert Brooks is great as Omalu’s mentor, who sides with his protege, but warns him that he’s going up against not just any company, but the company that owns “the day of the week”.
Though he only shows up in just a handful of scenes, David Morse gives an absolutely heartbreaking turn as the former Steelers legend Mike Webster. Morse’s performance is the most effective at illustrating the devastating effects of CTE, and it’s a testament to how good he is here that he can turn a small amount of screen time into a memorable appearance.
Though it tries a little too hard to be greater than the story already allows it to be by playing up the melodrama, Concussion is still a gutsy enough look at an issue plaguing the professional sports world today, and benefits first and foremost from one of Will Smith’s finest performances. Had it have cut the extraneous story fat and maybe one or two redundant speeches about what it means to be an American, this could’ve been a stronger film, perhaps even an award contender. Still, in spite of its issues, when it focuses on Omalu’s research of the toll CTE takes on some of America’s fiercest competitors, it’s riveting drama.
I give Concussion a B (★★★).