As a man who respects the sanctity of NFL Sundays, I entered Concussion with mixed emotions. Could Peter Landesman’s medical drama leave Roger Goodell’s regime nursing a black eye, or would the film be regarded as Hollywood propaganda? The research, stories, and statistics are all real, but the film’s power relies solely on execution – something Landesman muddies. Dr. Bennet Omalu’s pursuit of the American dream is uplifting, almost achieving a Disney-like magic, yet Landesman’s portrayal of the NFL’s evil empire only respects the good doctor’s point of view. It’s an important topic, but there’s a fair trial that’s missing here – even if such respect isn’t deserved.
Will Smith plays the famed Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian immigrant who seeks America’s greener pastures for a life of fulfillment. Instead, he finds himself at war with the NFL after uncovering a concussion conspiracy that threatens everything fans love about professional football.
The inexplicable death of Pittsburgh Steeler great Mike Webster raises questions in Omalu, as do mirroring symptoms discovered in the bodies of other deceased NFL retirees (Justin Strzelczyk, Dave Duerson, Terry Long). According to Omalu, the players experienced such heavy brain damage that they developed a condition labeled Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy – an aggressive dementia brought upon by repeated blows to the head. Omalu doesn’t want to disband the NFL, but he’s treated like an enemy to American culture for his warnings of neglectful treatment. He’s harassed, both legally and civilly, all while more former players complain of the same mind-altering sickness – and no one seems to care.
The film’s bright spot, which comes as no surprise, is indeed Mr. Smith’s portrayal of a humble, good man who talks to corpses and obsesses over death. Admittedly, those are his quirkier traits – let’s instead praise Smith’s beautiful appreciation of life in the wake of passing. Omalu’s job is morbid, yet his demeanor is cheery, respectful, and appreciative. Even when faced with controversy and strong-arming FBI goons, his drive is never deterred or slighted. Smith creates a figure out of Omalu whose convictions match his intense desire to better humanity, providing a perfect counter-point to the money-grubbing NFL-ers who hold television ratings over a man’s well-being. Omalu is charismatic, enlightening and full of compassion – a stark contrast to the film’s MUCH darker elements.
When Concussion isn’t exploring Omalu’s brightness or his wife’s enjoyable better-half-ness (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw), death casts a bleak darkness over the lives of many. Whether it be the former NFL players who slowly loose mental control, or the scared, heartbroken families left behind, we watch CTE strip stoic figures of their dignity. There’s nothing scarier than losing your mind, and we’re forced to re-live that same nightmare through the lives of deteriorating hometown heroes. You get a real distaste for the NFL in these moments of blissful ignorance, as Landesman uses pain to highlight a necessity for change. Webster’s broken confusion cuts our emotions like a dagger, but sometimes the film feels repetitive in its desperate nature to recap all the damage done. Faith and hope are preached as gospel, but despair and defeat overtake as the film’s main thematic elements.
Concussion never sets out to show how the NFL took Omalu’s testimony into consideration, because, for the most part, they didn’t. Not only did Commissioner Goodell deny it harder than a dirty politician, but in a lawsuit brought upon by some 5,000 retired players, the NFL settled on the condition that records of ignored health hazards not be made public. There’s no romanticizing Paul Tagliabue’s stepping down, essentially admitting to years of player-safety ignorance, or Goodell’s stalling in front of Congress when questioned about playing conditions. Every NFL politician is painted as a question-dodging, dollar-obsessed bastard (besides Alec Baldwin’s sympathetic Dr. Julian Bailes), and they’re never given a chance to fully respond to Omalu’s sentiments. This is all about one man’s feeble attempt to make a change in the National Football League, and the hopelessness he feels when nothing comes of his monumental scientific discovery.
There are many aspects that make Concussion worthwhile. The chemistry between Will Smith and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, for example, is sweet and refined – wonderfully deep souls interwoven with a common destiny. Albert Brooks as Dr. Cyril Wecht, Omalu’s advisor, marks another strong character whose hardened skin keeps his pupil positive (and us laughing). But Luke Wilson’s momentary appearances as Darth Goodell, and a bullish aggression from NFL members feel like we’re getting an over-characterized version of a company that’s compared to big tobacco on numerous occasions. There’s a tragic breakdown in power that’s worth exposing here, covered in an average conspiracy piece marred by one-sided explanations.
Concussion is more a field goal than a touchdown - Landesman walks away with points, but there's a larger score left on the field.