AFI Fest 2015 Review: Peter Landesman's 'Concussion' with Will Smith
by Marco Cerritos
November 17, 2015
The new film Concussion centers on the real life expose of NFL head trauma, a condition so common and infuriating that it's surprising the information took as long as it did to leak to the public. It's an important subject that demands considerable attention yet director Peter Landesman only manages a serviceable film. Instead of being the NFL version of The Insider or All the President's Men, we get a version of the story that covers most of the bases but without any real depth or insight. Yet as it stands this lightweight indictment of the NFL is still enough to make audiences think twice before watching one of their favorite sports.
Will Smith leads the cast of Concussion as Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian pathologist working in Pittsburgh and completely oblivious to football. When former Steelers hero Mike Webster (played by David Morse) turns up on his dissection table after losing a long bout with depression and memory loss, it doesn't take Omalu long to find inconsistencies in the autopsy. The deeper he digs the more he questions how a pro athlete in seemingly great health can quickly deteriorate to a vegetable. The eventual discovery is CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), trauma caused by severe blows to the human body. Or in Webster's case a long pro-football career filled with many head-on collisions on the football field.
Omalu begins the film as curious and idealistic, even going as far as publishing his findings in a medical journal in the hopes that the NFL will celebrate his work and change the game in a safer way. Anyone who has seen enough movies knows that the messenger is never championed and the big bad always tries to cover their tracks. Such is the real life case with Omalu and the NFL and as depicted in “Concussion” we see the sports giant ruthlessly negate the facts over and over again. Even as more football players come forward to validate Omalu's results the NFL continue to act as if CTE is a myth constructed by the crusading doctor.
Omalu's fight with the NFL is where Concussion is strongest and Smith in particular excels at keeping himself restrained and relatable in these scenes, never going off and giving the role too much of his superstar charisma. Unfortunately the film also deems it necessary to counter these hard-hitting scenes with flashes of Omalu's personal life with wife Prema. As played by Gugu Mbatha –Raw (also in Beyond the Lights), she does what she can with limited material but this unnecessary backstory weighs the central plot down and muddles what should have been a straight-forward narrative.
Credit for Concussion's success is also courtesy of supporting players Alec Baldwin and Albert Brooks. They each play key advocates in Omalu's movement against the NFL and Brooks in particular shines in his limited scenes. Smith as the film's lead is doing great work in Concussion despite the film itself sometimes feeling bipolar. An Oscar nomination is not out of the question but may prove to be the film's only chance at accolades since this is more lightweight entertainment than a modern classic.
Marco's AFI 2015 Rating: B
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