Concussion

Concussion is a noble movie. It's so noble, in fact, that the experience of watching it often feels more like paying a visit to a bronze statue than watching a movie, which is a problem. The film tackles an issue that is still relevant and significant, but there's no sense of urgency or passion in the way it examines that issue. This is a film filled to the brim with inspirational speeches, swelling strings and dramatic confrontations, which makes the lack of fire even more striking. Plus, all that nobility doesn't mesh too well with the film's curious lack of honesty.

The film begins with Mike Webster (David Morse, Proof of Life), a former Pittsburgh Steelers center who is found dead at the age of 50. The autopsy is conducted by Bennett Omalu (Will Smith, Independence Day), a forensic pathologist who works for the Allegheny County coroner's office under the supervision of Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks, Drive). When Omalu learns that Webster had severe brain damage, he begins to suspect that the death was largely the result of the punishment Webster had taken during his NFL career. Over the next few years, Omalu discovers other, similar cases, and begins digging deeper. Naturally, the NFL doesn't take too kindly to this.

You've seen some version of this story before (Erin Brockovich, All the President's Men, A Civil Action, etc.): a dedicated, heroic protagonist attempts to find the truth while sinister forces from some powerful organization try to shut the investigation down. Concussion feels like an awfully simplified version of that sort of movie, leaving precious little room for shades of gray and painting the vast majority of the characters as pretty straightforward “good guys” and “bad guys.” Yes, the real-life Omalu did research that felt like a serious threat to the NFL, but the film's version of Omalu's life feels like the sort of melodramatic persecution fantasy that's usually left to the realm of ham-fisted religious films.

An example: in one scene, FBI agents burst into the coroner's office, charge Wecht (who happens to be Omalu's best friend and mentor) with 84 counts of corruption (all incredibly flimsy, nitpicky charges, mind you) and then unsubtly inform Omalu that they'll be coming after him next if he doesn't start getting in line. Whoa, the NFL is so powerful that they control the FBI? Intense! Alas, the scene is a heavily-fudged version of the truth, which is that Wecht was charged with corruption before the NFL knew anything about Omalu's work (also, Omalu went on to testify against Wecht in court... something Concussion's version of the character promises never to do). Perhaps even more egregious is the completely fictional sequence in which Omalu's wife Prema (Gugu Mbatha Raw, Belle) miscarries due to the stress of being stalked by the NFL's hoodlums. The NFL has done plenty of morally bankrupt things that could have been effectively used by the film, so why does Concussion feel the need to turn the league into a ridiculous bogeyman? Likewise, it misrepresents the medical facts of the story, oversimplifying and overstating the link between pro football and suicide (there may indeed be a connection worth exploring, but statistically, former NFL players are less likely to commit suicide than other men their age).

Omalu is a Nigerian immigrant, which allows the film to indulge in a sort of mock naivete that quickly becomes tiresome: the pathologist doesn't really know too much about American culture or America's relationship with football, so he is repeatedly shocked (shocked!) to learn that both the NFL and many football fans are more interested in preserving the game than in protecting the health of the players. So, we're treated to scenes with former Steelers team doctor Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin, 30 Rock) – a sympathetic ally who provides some crucial support to Omalu - delivering a handful of generic, “Look, you don't know what these people will do to you!” speeches.

Smith's performance is a mostly-unsatisfying turn; one of those roles where you sense that the actor is trying just a little too hard. Smith certainly seems devoted to getting that Nigerian accent right, but this is such a vanilla character. We're supposed to be moved by Omalu's unwavering decency and warmth, but he's so consistently honorable and brave that it begins to feel like we're watching the tribute video version of his life. The actor was vastly better in Focus (his other 2015 star vehicle), which gave him a part that played to all of his strengths (both comic and dramatic) and let him remind us of why he's such an appealing movie star. In Concussion, he seems to be straining valiantly to convince us that he's just an ordinary, humble guy.

I recognize that the issues Concussion raises are important (even if it has a tendency to exaggerate the reality of the situation). I have a family member who played in the NFL. I've seen the toll that the profession can take on a person's life. The league has demonstrated a great deal of dishonesty in the way it has chosen to deal with this issue, and the serious health consequences the game can cause have been underplayed (accepting the risk of a knee or hip injury is an entirely different thing than accepting the risk of severe brain trauma). As such, it's a shame that the movie strays from both the medical and biographical facts of this story so frequently for the sake of juicing things up. It compromises the power of the film's argument, and the film itself isn't good enough to overcome that (Peter Landesman's writing and direction is workmanlike at best). To quote Smith's big awards-reel scene: “Tell the truth!”


Concussion

Rating: ½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 123 minutes
Release Year: 2015