A million debates about a deflated football, but you’ll hardly hear anything about Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the controversy at the center of Peter Landesman’s sports-med biopic “Concussion”. I suppose a testament to America’s obsession with the sport, it took an immigrant with no real knowledge of it to expose what should have been obvious: that thousands of blows to the head just ain’t good for you.
Nigerian doctor Bennett Omalu (Will Smith) is an expert in a multitude of fields, as revealed in his opening courtroom testimony for a murder trial. The year is 2002, and Omalu has settled in as a neuropathologist at the University of Pittsburgh under the renowned Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), where he performs autopsies and gives his co-workers (Mike O’Malley among them) the creeps by speaking to his deceased patients. When retired Pittsburgh Steeler center Mike Webster (David Morse) arrives on his table, Omalu is suspicious of the dramatic and distressing change in behavior that led to it his death: “A heart attack is how he died, but not why“.
So begins a procedural that could inspire a CBS medical drama series, a relatively glossy production that, like many network offerings, has Ridley Scott’s fingerprints on it. But writer/director Landesman does well by Scott’s seed of an idea, which developed from the suicide of linebacker Junior Seau and the GQ article Game Brain by Marie Laskas, even if many of the severe implications seem oversimplified for the viewer.
The film’s strength is unquestionably in its performances, which are superb all around. Smith mimics Omalu’s accent and amiable demeanor with such convincing ease that we’re inclined to forget that he’s a Hollywood mega-star from Philly. Brilliant and accomplished yet lovably unassuming, the character doesn’t exactly wear his heart on his sleeve; he’s a beacon of determination in a sea of disapproving football fans, a guy who respects the American Dream possibly more than those who accuse him of trying to destroy it. Save a moment with Steelers neurosurgeon (Arliss Howard), who is resistant to findings that might explain the mysterious death of several NFL players in favor of preserving America’s favorite sport, Omalu’s relentless optimism is virtually impenetrable. His proof is in the science, his argument that there are more cases like it: common sense.
Only when beautiful Prema Mutiso (immensely talented British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw) enters his life does Omalu’s confidence give way to an uncharacteristic child-like sheepishness with the onset of puppy love. Strong role model types are neither new nor a stretch for Mbatha-Raw, whose Prema, a nurse from Nairobi, is a vital, intellectually stimulating component of Omalu’s life, rather than just the requisite love interest relegated to some fluffy sidebar romance.
As a thriller, the movie’s intensity peaks in the first act with David Morse, who fully commits to his character’s degenerative disorder. In one scene, after begging team doctor Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin) for help, he ends up dying a horrible death when self-mutilating in the back of his pickup truck. Morse’s indelible screen time ends early, but the ex-athlete’s demise is enough for Bailes’ to depart the Steelers and eventually partner with Omalu in his research. Baldwin mostly plays Baldwin–a good thing, in this reviewer’s opinion–but the actor invariably leaves enough room to distinguish one character from the next (as best exemplified by his more extensive and challenging part in 2013’s “Still Alice”). And need I elaborate on the great Albert Brooks? The only thing lacking here are his curly locks.
“Concussion” also stars Luke Wilson as incoming NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who is not painted in the most flattering light when he’s asked to address the epidemic on live TV. Pro football is compared to Big Tobacco on more than one occasion in the film, which draws inevitable comparison to a much more bold and assiduous flick called “The Insider”. Omalu’s seemingly insurmountable uphill battle against a cultural behemoth makes for a decent exposé-style bio-drama, though neither the film nor Omalu condemn the sport of football as much as they do the executives who denied, at the time, the risks associated with it. To paraphrase Brooks: the NFL is so powerful that they own a day of the week that used to belong to God. I’m a football fan, but “Concussion” makes it hard not to look back at ESPN’s injury-celebrating segment “Jacked Up” without some degree of disgust.