For many today, the observation that “football causes concussions” is such an intuitive proposition that it borders on the redundant. The precise link between professional football and severe neurological damage, however, hadn’t been identified until recently – via a controversial series of events that sparked multimillion-dollar litigation.
Inspired by an outstanding GQ article, “Concussion” recounts the story of Dr. Bennet Omalu’s discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), an neurodegenerative condition found in NFL players as a result of repeated blows to the head. Notably, CTE cannot be diagnosed via a standard MRI or CT scan, but requires actual samples of brain tissue in order for pathologists to detect the buildup of toxic substances. Naturally, Omalu’s theory – suggesting that football is an inherently hazardous activity – instantly places him at odds with the powerful NFL corporation, which does everything in its power to bury Omalu’s findings.
The greatest strength of “Concussion” is its outstanding cast. Will Smith turns in an exceptional starring performance as Omalu (his Nigerian accent is remarkable). Similarly, Alec Baldwin, playing against type as a retired NFL team doctor who assists Omalu, turns in a strong supporting performance.
That said, “Concussion” can’t quite decide whether it wants to be a biopic (a la “A Beautiful Mind”) or a historical/cultural thriller (a la “Spotlight”). The first half of the film meanders through Omalu’s initial discovery of the CTE phenomenon, drifting periodically into an unnecessary romantic subplot, before the NFL starts pushing back and things kick into high gear. Where the primary thrust of the story – the concussion scandal – is concerned, at least 45 minutes (and probably closer to 60) could’ve be trimmed altogether.
Perhaps the movie’s most unfortunate flaw, however, is its persistent unwillingness to embrace the nitty-gritty details of its own narrative. The camera cuts away from depicting any of Omalu’s actual autopsies. The movie embraces mushy “sciencey” vocabulary over actual medical terminology. Characters gloss over the legal and journalistic sparring surrounding Omalu’s research. The really uncomfortable question at the core of the story – whether the NFL’s millions of rabid fans, who crave ever more action and brutality in the game, are morally complicit in the deaths of players – isn’t probed. Audiences aren’t as dumb as the producers of “Concussion” appear to believe (the highly technical “Moneyball” and various Christopher Nolan movies have minted money at the box office), and the story of Omalu’s work is incredibly interesting (not to mention culturally topical, morally murky, and intellectually challenging). In prioritizing maximum accessibility over Sorkinesque panache, “Concussion” renders itself more forgettable than provocative.
(As an aside, “Concussion” offers no affirmative proposals for reform or alternatives to the current football dynamic. The film is a message movie through and through, but isn’t bold enough to say anything more interesting than “football is dangerous.”)
In short, “Concussion” is worth waiting to see on Netflix or Redbox (if only for Will Smith’s performance) but represents a significant missed opportunity to tell its disquieting story. Against other awards-season fare like “Spotlight,” “Concussion” can’t measure up.
A frustratingly uneven film that doesn’t quite deliver on its fascinating premise.
Normalized Score: 1.6