From the start of fall through the winter, Americans coast to coast take their place at the cathedrals of the nation on Sunday. The pews are couches. The communion are heavily salted potato chips. Beer takes the place of wine. The mass is a day-long marathon of the brutal ballet that is professional football. As happens to all religions, controversy has crept its way into the national conversation. After years of resisting admission into the long term effects of multiple concussions, the NFL has spent this past season patting themselves on the back for instituting a concussion protocol, which is a set of rules that are implemented when a player is suspected of sustaining a concussion during a game. Of course, they still haven’t worked out all the kinks as evidenced by the recent inaction following a concussion to St. Louis Rams quarterback Case Keenum.
As much as the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell would like you to believe they’re being proactive about the issue of concussion in their sport, that’s simply not the case and is now the subject of the new film starring Will Smith, Concussion, about Dr. Bennett Omalu who first discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy, commonly called CTE, a degenerative brain disease that is caused by multiple concussions. The film is unflinching in its critical aspects of the NFL, though it often falls into generic biopic territory. The result is a film that is a welcome addition to the conversation surrounding the NFL and chronic brain trauma, but falls short in being an all-encompassing cinematic firecracker.
Concussion opens with Dr. Bennet Omalu (Smith), a Nigerian-born pathologist with a variety of degrees, using his expertise in a criminal trial. He is a quiet man living a quiet life in Pittsburgh where he performs autopsies, though his unorthodox methods draw the ire of his co-worker Daniel Sullivan (Mike O’Malley). Omalu constantly seeks the advice of his mentor Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), who uses his years of experience to teach Omalu how to navigate the political aspects of his workplace and duties. When a former Pittsburgh Steelers legend, Hall of Fame player Mike Webster (David Morse), is found dead, having killed himself destitute and alone, Omalu is driven by curiosity and begins to study the dead man’s brain. Consulting with Webster’s former team doctor Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin) and another respected neurologist Dr. Steven DeKosky (Eddie Marsan), Omalu publishes his findings with a discovery that sends shockwaves through the corridors of power within the NFL. Soon, the foreign doctor is faced with a number of disparaging accusations that may very well destroy the life he’s made in America, including the burgeoning romance between himself and Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), an immigrant whom Omalu has taken in. But as more and more former players begin to take their own lives, the NFL can only deny Omalu’s work for so long before it becomes a national scandal for the newly appointed commissioner Roger Goodell (Luke Wilson).
Writer-director Peter Landesman’s film, based upon the GQ article “Game Brain” by Jeanne Marie Laskas, works best when it’s focused on the issue of the film’s title. It’s very adept at explain what it is that Omalu discovered in his research, and just how wide spread the effects were on players. In an era where many fans feel that recent safety measures are “wussifying” the game, it’s a sober examination of the human toll that occurs on countless football fields across the country.
Concussion falters when it spends far too much time on its generic romance between Omalu and Prema – their real life love story may be quite inspirational, but it’s presented in such an uninteresting fashion here. The other glaring weak spot in the film is the almost cartoonish manner that some its villains take. As his co-worker, Daniel Sullivan is a caricature whose early resistance to Omalu’s unorthodox manner of work is undercooked and seemingly only included in the film so that he can have a “told you so” moment when Omalu is being smeared for his controversial study. Those same problems extend to league officials, played by Hill Harper and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, the latter being a former player. Both characters are just inherently shady with little depth added to their individual characters. This undermines the later revelation when Akinnuoye-Agbaje character, the real life former player Dave Duerson, is suffering himself and takes his own life. It comes across as a disservice to the real life people who suffered and took their own lives dealing with this affliction.
As a star-driven feature, Concussion can’t focus properly on the varying elements that would make it a much more captivating piece of cinema. Will Smith gives a spirted performance as Omalu, but his headlining the film ensures that focus remains entirely on his character when it definitely needed further shading for those surrounding its lead. In a supporting role, Albert Brooks gives the film’s best performance, injecting the film with a sharp sense of humor in his scenes.
The biggest problem facing Concussion that is the story of one man grappling with an issue that is larger than just one man. In many regards this is a film that would’ve greatly benefitted from being an ensemble about the systemic corruption in the NFL’s handling of the issue, like a football version of this year’s stellar Spotlight. But Concussion isn’t a bad movie by any means, it just falls short in hitting all its marks. The NFL still pulls in nearly $9 billion annually and has only gotten moderately better in handling the scourge of concussions that plagues the sport. Peter Landesman’s film may fall a bit short but it doesn’t let the NFL just write off its past sins as a moment of youthful indiscretion. As an institution, the NFL and its leader in Roger Goodell dragged their feet in enacting these changes and numerous former players are still fighting for their health issues to be recognized. Concussion may not have the hard-hitting impact it intended to, but it holds the NFL’s feet to the fire. We can’t just ignore their sins on Sunday as we all watch at our personal cathedrals.