Director: Peter Landesman
Starring: Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha-Raw
One of the most affecting scenes in Concussion is brief and wordless – a high school American football team goes through its drills.
The message is sobering, especially if you are a parent – concussion-related brain damage from American football is not only a threat to the professionals.
That alone is a strong argument for any American football lover – or parent of one – to see this film, which is anchored by a sensitive, understated performance by Will Smith as the real-life forensic pathologist who earned the wrath of the game’s guardians, the National Football League, for shining a torch on the problem.
The film, written and directed by Peter Landesman, suffers from an overly simplistic, sometimes preachy script that could have used sharper editing. Yet it is to be admired for bringing a truly important issue to the big screen – and greater public awareness.
It all begins when a beloved former Pittsburg Steelers player ends up on Dr Bennet Omalu’s autopsy table: Mike Webster, who died at the age of 50 after being plagued by dementia. Omalu, a Nigerian immigrant, wonders why a high-level athlete would experience such rapid deterioration. Ignoring colleagues’ pleas to leave the case alone, he orders tests on Webster’s brain, at his own expense.
What he discovers is shocking: the player’s brain has been ravaged by repeated blows during his long career – about 70,000, Omalu estimates. He co-authors an article in a medical journal outlining his findings that Webster – and others – had Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy).
He assumes the NFL will be glad to know, so it can better protect its athletes. He is wrong. The league tries to discredit him. As his boss tells him: “You’re going to war with a corporation that owns a day of the week – the same day the church used to own.”
Or, as former Steelers doctor Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin) tells him: “You gave their biggest bogeyman a name.”
Smith deserves credit – he masters Omalu’s Nigerian accent in a convincing, unshowy manner and is hugely watchable. When Omalu goes to a nightclub, not his natural habitat, to dance with the woman who will become his wife, Smith makes Omalu’s shyness believable – for a minute, you forget this is the hugely charismatic Will Smith.
Whether he is good enough to have been nominated for an Oscar, given the controversy over the all-white Academy Award acting nominations, is a debate that rumbles on.
Baldwin is effective, too, though his own accent is uneven. As Omalu’s future wife, the gorgeous Gugu Mbatha-Raw is touching but underused – and saddled with more heavy-handed lines than she deserves.
It is she, though, who points out a deep truth to Omalu that he hasn’t seen: American football, she tells him, is a beautiful game.
Indeed it is. But it also has a dark, troubling side that many have been loath to acknowledge.For that reason alone, Concussion is a worthy enterprise indeed.