Review: The NFL is properly damned in wobbly ‘Concussion’

Will Smith does his best to do a medical pioneer justice
Will Smith in 'Concussion'

Dr. Bennet Omalu was the NFL’s greatest nightmare.  The researcher’s discovery of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) was a scientific touchdown against the league’s campaign to quiet any criticism over the damaging biological effects of its violent sport. In Peter Landesman’s new drama “Concussion,” the writer and director attempts to thread the narrative of a complex medical and cultural issues through the life of Dr. Omalu, played by Will Smith in the film, and the results are simply not as fascinating as the man himself.

In 2002, the 34-year-old Omalu was a forensic pathologist at the County Coroner’s Office in Pittsburgh. The Nigerian born doctor already had six advanced degrees to his credit and was working under one of his idols Cyril Wecht (an on point Albert Brooks) when he was assigned the autopsy of former Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster (a fantastic David Morse). As the film chronicles to the best of its ability, Webster had succumbed to tremendous psychological pain and what had been previously diagnosed as dementia (it’s actually some of the most interesting material in the picture).  Omalu could not understand how Morse could have dementia when the exterior of his brain showed no symptoms of the disease. After financing a number of additional tests at his own expense he discovered what eventually was christened CTE, a condition of deterioration within the inside of the brain caused by intense and repetitive head trauma.

Omalu teams up with researchers at the University of Pittsburgh (a gone too soon Eddie Marsan) and publishes his findings in the journal Neurosurgery in 2005 (not that the movie lets you know that much time has passed). That’s when the NFL first takes notice of Omalu’s work and starts to discredit it publicly. Eventually, more and more cases come to light including a teammate of Hodges’ Justin Strzelczyk (Matthew Willig) and former pro-bowler Andre Waters (Richard T. Jones). Omalu teams up with former Steelers team physician Dr. Julian Bailes (a fine Alec Baldwin) and they attempt to get the NFL to take them seriously.

As “Concussion” makes clear, this story is still not over and as you’d suspect that makes it problematic for a traditional Hollywood endeavor.   That’s one reason why Landeman centers it around Omalu’s discovering CTE, but the other movie about the doctor’s life is the one you keep wondering about.

Omalu’s journey to Pittsburgh is arguably more cinematic than what we see here, but that story would pull the audience too far away from the drama with the NFL and its players. What we’re left with is a predictable secondary storyline where Omalu is introduced to his future wife, Prema Mutiso (Gugu Mbatha-Raw without much to do), by his local church and their dreams of creating a family are initially thwarted by the NFL and NFL fan’s anger over his public report. There is no doubt a significant amount of truth to the Omalu’s experience, but it feels strangely manufactured to try and push the emotional buttons of the audience, buttons it wouldn’t need if even more attention were paid to the men suffering from CTE (something Landeman teases with Webster at the beginning of the film).

That’s the most disappointing aspect of “Concussion.” The seeds of an epic tale of collusion, betrayal and heartbreak are inherent to the material, but Landeman takes the easy way out by making Omalu more straightforward story the film’s emotional center.

Smith, who is starring in just his fourth leading role over the past seven years, is able to channel some of Omalu’s natural charisma and eventually you begin to forget that his attempt at a Nigerian accent is a bit off (thankfully it never falters into Joseph Gordon-Levitt territory). Where things become difficult for the veteran star is when he’s forced to convey just how tough Omalu’s personal journey after coming under the scrutiny of the league actually was. One particular moment finds Omalu gazing upon Pittsburgh’s three rivers with Mutiso by his side and questioning whether he should have ever published his findings in the first place. It was no doubt cringe worthy on the page, but to Smith and Mbatha-Raw’s credit their collective talents find a way to make it almost believable on screen.

Where “Concussion” succeeds is reminding the public of the dangers of CTE. Omalu’s research has spread to other sports and even a U.S government research project into the lasting effects of this conduction in military personnel and veterans. Still, because the NFL made its eventual legal settlement with over 4,500 former players effectively sealed there are still parents, players and fans that have no idea about the condition. And, as a character in the film notes, if 10% of parents across the nation decide not to let their kids play football or it leads to less contact in the sport that could, truly, change everything.

Grade: C+

“Concussion” opens nationwide on Christmas day.

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With over a decade of experience in the movie industry, Ellwood survived working for two major studios, has written for Variety, MSN and the LA Times and co-founded HitFix, Inc. serving as its first Editor-in-Chief and President. Ellwood spends his time relaxing hitting 3’s on the basketball court and following his beloved Clippers.

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