A clear narrative pattern develops throughout Concussion by which the film viciously and relentlessly exposes the potential horrors an average NFL career can exhibit on a player’s brain, then scales back for a few precious seconds to allow characters to wax poetic about the undeniable “beauty” of the game, thus proving that it sees value in this otherwise barbaric enterprise it so busily derides. Something similar could be said about the film – there are occasional glimmers of moving filmmaking, a bevy of strong performances, and a subject matter of undeniable importance, and yet the film is such an incessantly syrupy, square-jawed lesson in right and wrong that it’s hard for any small nuance to break through.
It’s tricky terrain, reviewing this film, since its topic is the most consequential sports issue of our time – traumatic and lethal brain injuries resulting from playing professional football – and yet its execution is so clunky and its morality so firmly entrenched in wholesome judgment that it almost feels as though its factual accuracy should be questioned. It shouldn’t; this is a fact-based story whose science is undeniable. The content isn’t the issue – it’s the filmmaking that should be questioned.
Will Smith stars as groundbreaking forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu, in a near-flawless performance of grace and power. It’s difficult for a movie star as boisterous and recognizable as Smith to disappear into a role, but that’s precisely what he accomplishes here, inhabiting the skin and psyche of the meek-but-indomitable man who uncovered the insidious cancer permeating the NFL, which had been a bulletproof institution in spite of its obviously violent underpinnings. And let’s face it – the NFL is still bulletproof. It’s America’s new “National Pastime,” and it has only grown in popularity and value since Omalu first unearthed his scientific discoveries. Helmet technology has increased head protection and the league now institutes “Concussion Protocol” for any particularly heinous on-field collisions. Awareness has been raised, instances are no longer being swept under the rug, and the danger is no longer being (completely) denied by the powers-that-be. Yet the beast rages on, powerful as ever, consuming the populace like converts to a new religion.
Such is the duality that could have been rendered powerfully in a cinematic context. And there are instances where Concussion attempts to conjure that power, but they’re sparse and swift, blunted by the screenplay’s overwhelming sense of high-and-mighty justice, plotted as a black-and-white battle of faultless good versus ultimate evil and conveyed with the didactic hammer of investigative journalism. Since writer/director Peter Landesman is a former investigative journalist, that makes sense, though while that skill set is ideal for conveying the gravity of Omalu’s discovery, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), it’s less effective when weaving that discovery into a cinematic context, where there’s more in play than just the CT scans and medical journals. “Facts” and “truth” are the two words that overwhelmingly preoccupy this film, and while there may be no more valiant concepts, the human experience of this or any other story is murkier, messier, more nuanced.
As presented in Concussion, however, Omalu’s plight is dogged but his conflict is simple. He realizes a heretofore unknown disease, exposes its dangers, but is stonewalled by the Big Bad Football Machine. Which I’m sure is a true construct – I don’t question his research and I don’t doubt the NFL’s obstinance. But the lack of nuance ruins any sense of cinematic tension, with Omalu cast as a secular saint and no discernible internal conflict permitted to the villains, whose role is almost strictly limited as a phantom oppressor. Unseen trolls make threatening phone calls, NFL doctors (played by the smarmy likes of Arliss Howard and Paul Reiser) are only granted enough screen time to smugly spout transparently evil non-facts, and the depiction of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell as an empty figurehead is matched only by the film’s casting of Luke Wilson as Goodell’s jawline doppelganger.
Smith is excellent in this role, imbuing his character with soul and decency, even if the screenplay doesn’t provide him much to wrestle with internally. And any cinematic treatment of this football-centric epidemic is vital, for we should all be reminded of the inherent dangers of our favorite sport… and playing countless NFL collisions on a big screen is an effective vehicle to convey those dangers. So Concussion is important, but that doesn’t make it great polemical cinema.