*Potential Spoiler Alert- You have been Warned*
There are movies made to entertain the audience, and there are movies that are there to tell a story, whether its fun to watch or not. Concussion, directed by Peter Landesman, is definitely the latter, though I don’t know what you would expect from a movie about the dangers of football. This review is not going to be about whether or not football should be abolished- that’s not even what the film is about- but about the movie itself, and you should definitely know before you walk in that the laughs are minimal, the dialogue is heavy and the story will be something you think about long after you’ve left the theater, though it probably won’t bring you any joy to do so.
Will Smith stars as American immigrant Dr. Bennet Omalu, a brilliant and frankly over-qualified (and extremely proud of it) forensic neuropathologist working in Pittsburgh at the time when Mike Webster (David Morse), a former pro football player, dies of a heart attack. Omalu is intrigued as to why a man so young passes away from a heart attack and was dogged by mental issues when his brain looked perfectly normal, and so begins to run tests to find the cause of his mental deterioration. This leads to the discovery of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a condition caused by repeated concussions that often occur from normal football play. Omalu is joined by his boss Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks) and former Steelers team doctor Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin) to convince the National Football League of his findings and warn players of the risk they face when they step onto the field.
In order for this movie to work, the actors have to pull off a great deal of intensity. In some ways, Will Smith’s Omalu almost seems part of the cast and yet not part of the cast at the same time- his intensity can’t be denied, but he also has to be absurdly innocent, not realizing why the NFL wouldn’t want his work to be published and why most coroners don’t talk to the bodies they work on (something that Mike O’Malley is constantly nagging him for). It almost seems as though Omalu was meant to be a comedic relief as well as the hero of the story, and it made the character come off a little confusing. His anger and passion were amazing to watch, but his awkward romance with his future wife Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and occasionally adorable optimism pulled me out of the story and forced me to focus on who this character was supposed to be.
The truly impressive performances in this film came from those portraying football players, in my opinion, and from Baldwin’s conflicted Dr. Bailes. It’s one thing to not know football and be amazed by Omalu’s discoveries, like he was, but the be affected by them and to have been on the other side of the discovery would be a life-altering thing, and hard to portray. Morse’s Webster is truly a sad figure, and yet frightening at the same time. Many of the players we are shown affected by CTE almost seem like Lenny from Of Mice and Men– gentle giants, but with the potential to lash out violently and crush whoever is standing too close. It made watching their fall from their pedestals even more distressing, seeing how their fear of themselves manifests and ultimately destroys them. Baldwin also tugs at heartstrings when he explains how he was on the other side of the corporation of the NFL, how he worked with these men and his guilt over how he could have stopped it. It’s not enough for Omalu, someone who openly admits to have never watching football, to point out a problem. It’s quite another to see the problem manifest and for someone who had worked with the problem to admit its validity.
The shots and scenes are frankly a little expected- I lost count of the number of sweeping shots of the Steelers field that we were treated to, night and day, and I’m pretty sure from every angle you could imagine- but the score from James Newton Howard makes up for it with its well-placed build-up and strong emotional connection to the audience. And, as it turns out, this story isn’t even all about football; it’s about what it means to be an American, what the NFL means to America, why people are so willing to overlook truth. As it turns out, however, the issue isn’t with the strength of the story, but in the pieces it ignores- why is football such a big deal? Since Omalu is the main character, we see many shots from the perspective of the CTE he discovers. There are old video clips from football games, young high school kids working hard at practice, even little home videos of five-year-olds playing their first games, but all framed in the terror of concussions and head injuries and the potential for losing every piece of yourself you’ve ever known. The NFL is constantly shown as a shady, heartless corporation that knew about CTE for years before it was published. But we also have character’s like O’Malley’s Danny Sullivan, a die-hard fan of the Steelers, or like Baldwin, who emphasizes the beauty and grace and power of football, the part that turns towns on their heads to see it every weekend.
I live in a town where college football is a big deal, so even though I don’t know football very well (despite the efforts of my father and brother), I understand the passion that the sport inspires in others. The problem is that this movie doesn’t highlight that for anyone else- it only shows the stuff to be frightened of. For anyone who doesn’t follow football, and maybe for people who do, this movie is only going to share with us the bad things. Sure it’s not a documentary, it’s not OBLIGATED to tell us why football inspires so many people and why it’s the number one sport in a America, but it we really want to understand why Omalu had such a hard time make it public, we should have seen it. If Concussion really wanted us to understand their story, they should have told us the whole story, because that is when we can pull apart Omalu’s work and appreciate it for what it is and what it can do. Smith tells us to forgive ourselves for not seeing the signs, but we should understand why we were missing those signs.
You shouldn’t need tissues for this one, but it is a lot to take, so I suggest going earlier in the day so you have time to work though it all and not go to bed with this hanging on you.