Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Peter Landesman
Stars: Will Smith, Albert Brooks, Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Eddie Marsan, David Morse, Paul Reiser, Arliss Howard, Luke Wilson, Mike O’Malley, Hill Harper, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Stephen Moyer, Richard T Jones, Sara Lindsey.
There was an irony in the fact that we were watching a media preview of Concussion while the Superbowl was being televised throughout bars in the city. The fact based drama Concussion is highly critical of the all powerful NFL and its attempts to cover up the long term degenerative brain damage caused by the multiple blows sustained by elite players. Concussion is based on an article entitled Game Brain, which was written by Jeanne Marie Laskas and published in GQ magazine.
In 2002 Nigerian immigrant Dr Bennet Omalu (Will Smith), a doctor with eight advanced degrees to his name, was working as a forensic pathologist in Pittsburgh when he performed an autopsy on former champion football player and Hall of Famer Mike Webster (David Morse), who had died homeless in impoverished circumstances after years of substance abuse and irrational behaviour. Omalu diagnosed a hitherto unknown disease that seemed confined to former NFL players. After considerable research he named the condition chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Omalu suggested that the multiple blows suffered over the course of their career caused footballers to experience a number of debilitating symptoms such as loss of motor skills, sudden aggressive outbursts, early onset of dementia, and thoughts of suicide.
With the reluctant assistance of Dr Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin) a former team doctor and neurologist, Omalu set out to try and convince the NFL of the potential danger facing its players. As the number of cases of former footballers dying in tragic circumstances rises, so too does Omalu’s sense of urgency in trying to change the mindset of the NFL commissioners.
But football was the lifeblood of Pittsburgh – the town’s controllers had even closed down schools and hospitals in order to find the millions of dollars to build their showpiece football stadium – and they didn’t exactly welcome Omalu’s findings. The NFL saw his findings as a threat to their multi-billion dollar business, and tried to discredit his work, dismissing him as a “quack” and suggesting there was no scientific basis for his controversial theory. One of the most powerful organisations in America, the NFL even tried heavy handed tactics to silence him by having him and his supportive boss Dr Wecht (a fine Albert Brooks) investigated by the FBI.
Eventually Omalu’s reputation was restored when the NFL reluctantly conceded that his findings were in fact accurate. It is estimated that approximately 28% of footballers have or will suffer from CTE.
This David versus Goliath like story of an individual tackling corporate greed and malpractice somehow lacks the urgency and tension of similar themed dramas such as the superior Erin Brokovich. This is the second feature film for director Peter Landesman (Parkland, etc), but he fails to deliver the hard hitting movie that the subject matter required. But the film’s slow and measured pacing means that it ultimately lacks the impact it should have had given the disturbing issue it explores.
A rather cliched subplot explores the blossoming romance between Omalu and Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, from Belle, etc), a young Kenyan immigrant, and while it is necessary to further show the kindly doctor in a positive light, it seems a little melodramatic and slows down the drama at times. Some of this subplot smacks of unnecessary padding and could have been excised to concentrate on the central drama of Omalu’s attempts to convince the NFL of the very real dangers presented by CTE. Which would have made it a more powerful and persuasive drama.
The film benefits enormously from Smith’s earnest performance as Omalu. After the embarrassment of the dire sci-fi drama After Earth, Smith heralded a return to form with the enjoyable conman caper of Focus, and here he delivers a solid and understated if mannered performance. Smith’s Omalu is portrayed as almost impossibly virtuous and saintly, but with his own idiosyncrasies that somehow endear him to audiences. He is stubborn, resilient and committed to exposing the truth, even at great personal cost, a bit like Quincy from that 70s tv series. He is also slightly eccentric as he has a habit of talking to the dead bodies (a bit like David McCallum’s character in the hit tv series NCIS) as he performs the autopsies.
Smith gets solid support from Morse, in a small but effective role as the tragically doomed football champion. Brooks brings integrity and a sense of decency to his performance as Omalu’s supportive boss who encourages him in his fight against the ruthless corporate giant. Baldwin is also very good as the former sports doctor who also seeks redemption through his support of Omalu’s findings.
Concussion is an earnest enough film exploring a serious issue, but it is far from perfect, and does not deliver a convincing knockout blow that would have made it a great movie. Maybe there is a compelling documentary waiting to be made about Omalu and his struggle against the NFL.
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