Concussion cares too much about hurting football's feelings

A missed opportunity — and a waste of a great Will Smith performance

About two-thirds of the way through Peter Landesman's Concussion, Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith), explains that when he was growing up in Nigeria, becoming an American was the closest thing to divinity he could imagine. "You could be anything, you could do anything," he says. "I never wanted anything as much as I wanted to be an American."

That it happens while the National Football League — threatened by Omalu's discovery that football-related concussions can lead to debilitating mental health issues — tries to discredit him is meant to be a bit of stirring irony; a call to arms for Omalu to fight harder, push through, and never let those bastards take his American dream away. The fact that football is a sport that's become nearly synonymous with American values... well, that appears to be lost on Concussion — or at least too complex a dichotomy to really be bothered with.

It's an ongoing issue in a film that's full of half measures. Landesman sets the story up as a whistleblowing tale of righteous indignation, but never follows through; he wants to condemn the NFL, but wraps things up by admitting, "Boy, football sure is fun." Concussion may start off as a stirring conspiracy thriller with the best performance from Will Smith in years, but it's hard to care when it's wrapped in a two-hour after school special.

Based on the 2009 GQ article "Game Brain," Concussion introduces Omalu while he's working as a forensic pathologist in Pittsburgh. He's an outsider, shunned by colleagues for his empathetic, almost artistic approach to performing autopsies — he asks the body on his table for help before he starts — but backed by the gravity of Smith's natural charisma, it's nearly impossible not to root for him. Meanwhile, former Pittsburgh Steelers great Mike Webster (David Morse) is spiraling out of control, living out of his truck and suffering what appears to be a total mental collapse. When Webster dies and ends up at the coroner's, Omalu is intrigued by his case and discovers evidence in Webster's brain tissue that repeated concussions over the years led to a condition called CTE — with devastating psychological consequences. Working with a team of other doctors, Omalu publishes his findings, and while the NFL tries to dismiss them at first, Omalu keeps pushing, and then the NFL pushes back.

As more NFL players die, the movie becomes increasingly inert

After watching Smith lean on the same cocksure swagger in so many films, it's truly refreshing to watch him dial things back in Concussion. Omalu may be confident in his principles, but he's shy and unsure in everything else. Smith plays him as a gentle man forced to take extraordinary action, with all of it rooted in his pure-hearted idealism: for medicine, for people, and for his increasingly naive belief that people will always act of empirical goodwill rather than self-interest.

There's nothing novel in the idea of an idealistic individual going up against corporate machinery; it's been a sturdy framework for films going back to Frank Capra. But it requires a strong villain to rally against, and while the NFL ticks off all the boxes in the nameless, faceless corporate monstrosity category, Concussion never gives us a specific villain — presumably because doing so would mean naming names. Luke Wilson appears in a handful of scenes as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, but he's nothing more than a speaking cameo, a placeholder in a press conference scene. As more NFL players die due to CTE, and Omalu ratchets up his crusade, the movie becomes increasingly inert, not willing to put the necessary toys in the storytelling sandbox to let the audience become truly involved on Omalu's crusade.

Concussion

(Melinda Sue Gordon / Columbia Pictures)

There's been quite a bit of speculation about how much the NFL forced Sony to neuter Concussion. Last year, emails from the Sony hacks seemed to indicate that the film had been softened to avoid angering the league, with a cut scene featuring Goodell eventually surfacing online. But it's impossible to know just how much that actually impacted the movie as it's being released this year. Concussion certainly doesn't hesitate to point the finger at the NFL — characters openly say that the league knew about concussion issues for years and kept it quiet, and point out that the NFL has doctors with irrelevant degrees manning panels about the nuances of neuroscience. But there's no outrage in this film, despite Smith's teary-eyed demands that people "tell the truth!" — and it's an essential element whose absence can't be overlooked.

Then again, it's not like anyone could have really expected a film from a global corporation like Sony to go that hard at an entity with as much influence and pull as the NFL — particularly not a film that audiences would go see. Much like the conflict with Omalu's expressed views on America itself, there's a schism at the heart of Concussion, which comes down to the fact that it's a movie about the horrors of a sport which ultimately wants fans of that sport to buy tickets so it can earn back its budget. If the film didn't care about the potential for retaliation from the NFL, its message would have been unequivocal: football can cause irreparable, long-term damage, and people should either avoid it or significant amounts of money should be put into equipment and rule reforms to stop the trend.

But Concussion doesn't actually ever make that argument. With a star this big and a budget to match, the only thing it can't afford is integrity. So instead we have a film that lays out the proven research behind a devastating trend, portrays a callous, business-minded strategy from the NFL to discredit that research, and shows us a growing number of players that are dying or suffering several mental health problems — then ends with Omalu, his research finally taken seriously, talking about how his wife has allowed him to understand the grace and beauty of the sport. "Tell the truth?" Right.