Tweetable Takeaway: Will Smith gives a strong performance, but Concussion fails to hit its subject hard enough. Tweet
There’s an old saying in football: when you play at half-speed, that’s when you get hurt. When it comes to taking the NFL to task, CONCUSSION, a film written and directed by Peter Landesman based on an article in GQ by Jeanne Marie Laskas, does just that: plays at half-speed, slapping its opponent instead of trying to make the tackle.
After a cold open that introduces Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame center Mike Webster, we meet Dr. Bennet Omalu, an accomplished pathologist who, in his first scene, happily recites his remarkable resume to a jury as he testifies in court, punctuating the reveal of his third (or was it fourth?) Masters degree with a charming smile. We learn two important things in this scene that will come in handy throughout the rest of the film: (1) Will Smith is going to be speaking with a thick Nigerian accent, but he’s going to more-or-less pull it off, and (2) the screenplay, with its on-the-nose, expositional dialogue and heavy-handed, clichéd scenes, is not great.
We learn that Webster’s brain injury has essentially caused him to go mentally insane, and after a visit to his former team doctor, Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), Webster ends his own life. It’s a shock to Pittsburgh–and to Omalu’s coroner director Sullivan (Mike O’Malley, in an absurdly villainous, one-note role) who insists Omalu forego an autopsy. You know, the way professional pathologists are wont to do. Omalu resists the urge to not do his job, performs the autopsy, and discovers his first clue as to what is happening to former football players’ brains. This leads him down a dangerous–and, we’re frequently reminded, expensive–road of dissecting brains, meeting with neurosurgeons, and finally publishing his discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. You’d think that the threatening phone calls and unfamiliar sedans in the parking lot would start to make things really interesting, right?
Wrong. One of the more fundamental issues this film has is its lack of an interesting protagonist. As he’s presented in the movie, Dr. Omalu’s biggest flaws are that he doesn’t like to watch TV and he’s not a great dancer. Oh, and he loves America too much. Omalu’s lack of complexity makes him a dreadfully boring person to follow for two hours; beyond his impressive credentials, the most interesting thing about this guy is that he’s being played by Will Smith. There’s a poor attempt to revise this lack of complexity late in the film when Bailes suggests that Omalu is consumed with pride–but shooting a half-smile when someone gives you a compliment isn’t exactly hubris of Oedipal proportions.
As for Smith’s performance, he confidently portrays Omalu in both his aforementioned accent and his physicality. And while an actor like Smith, who is defined by his own brand of charm and personality, will always struggle to convince his audience that he’s someone other than ‘Will Smith’ on screen, this performance works and is arguably the best aspect of the film.
But despite Smith’s best effort, the film is undone by its pure, saccharine-sweet melodramatic tone. It’s a tone that underscores the entire film–from the portrayal of Omalu as a guy who ‘just has too much ambition’, to an eyeroll-inducing romantic B-story that never feels remotely earned or geunine, to its unwillingness to tackle its subject with any degree of ruthlessness. It’s that last point that undermines the entire film: Concussion sets up what could be a powerful and intriguing indictment of the NFL, but it completely pulls its knockout punch–so much so that its criticism of the organization ultimately feels like an afterthought. When ‘mysterious men’ are following Omalu’s wife in a car, or FBI agents are raiding his boss’s offices, the NFL is never directly called out as the perpetrator. Even the bizarre casting of Luke Wilson as Roger Goodell feels like the filmmakers were going soft on their targets (especially jarring given what was otherwise a seemingly obsessive attention to detail when it came to depicting real life characters with accuracy).
Perhaps the filmmakers wanted to avoid a legal battle–after all, the film’s most direct assault on the NFL is to emphasize the organization’s litigious nature. But as a comparison, take another of this year’s awards season hopefuls, The Big Short, which attacks the morality of the financial industry with verve, vigor, and unrelenting wrath. You can debate whether or not Adam McKay’s stylish tactics worked in conveying his point of view, but you can’t deny that he has a point of view. By the end of this film, the message seems to be that football is dangerous, but the NFL doesn’t want to admit that because the sport makes a lot of people a lot of money. Not exactly earth shattering information. Beyond that, the movie resists taking a stand, consistently coming back to the idea that football is a “beautiful game.” Next time a movie comes along that wants to take the NFL to task regarding its lack of respect for the health and well-being of its players, let’s hope those involved dispel with the niceties, take their stance, and play at full speed.
Score: 2 out of 5
David Olson | Associate Editor