In the movie Concussion, we see Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) of the Pittsburgh medical examiner’s office is perplexed by his latest case: local football icon Mike Webster, who had degraded into a semi-coherent drug addict before dying for no apparent cause. Omalu eventually recognizes that Webster’s brain has been damaged due to years of head contact while playing football. Unfortunately, many other players are in danger of suffering the same fate, but NFL rumors start to spread and the organisation tries to discredit the doctor.

The story

Webster (David Morse) was a local hero as the Steelers’ longstanding, Super Bowl-winning center. Still, following his retirement, he began to suffer from memory loss, melancholy, and violent mood swings, eventually ending up homeless. Omalu is perplexed about how an otherwise fit athlete could have such a severe psychological collapse, so he chooses to get brain tests done, even if it means paying for them himself. He discovers a level of neurological impairment comparable to Alzheimer’s disease, which is startling.

By diagnosing the disorder that eventually became known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), Omalu takes on the authorities, who have no interest in recognizing that the sport is detrimental to players, and dismisses the NFL retaliation. They also do everything they can to discredit the doctor.

Omalu’s findings are published in a medical publication, prompting immediate retaliation from NFL authorities. More test cases pile up, the NFL’s deflection tactics intensify, and Omalu eventually teams up with Julian Bailes (an oddly accented but effective Alec Baldwin), a former Steelers team doctor who becomes a significant co-advocate, and key co-worker on the case.

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The acting

It involves conspiracy, whistle-blowing, hard science, and asks the question: what do you do when the national pastime proves to be dangerous to your health? This story is told in the film Concussion, which is a middle-of-the-road drama with stock characters. Will Smith’s portrayal as Omalu is at the center of the film. In confronting the ossified attitudes of NFL bigwigs, Omalu encounters a lot of institutional prejudice, so Smith grinds his teeth and takes it all in stride. In his better scenes, he’s tough and determined.

As a real-life character who is a force of nature in his own way, the actor uses his star wattage to good effect here, buttoning down but never attempting to disguise his innate charisma. Omalu, a passionate Nigerian immigrant, has a massive number of advanced degrees and certifications. He treats the bodies he dissects in a Pittsburgh coroner’s office like living patients, conversing with them before the autopsy and carving them apart with brand-new blades while listening to Teddy Pendergrass. Omalu’s Christian religion influences the way he works and the gentleness he interacts with everyone he meets. He is a scientist who enjoys and takes pride in his passion for learning.

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There’s a lot to like about this movie: the narrative, the man behind the story, and the care with which it tells it. Concussion is worth seeing just for that. It’s incredibly heartbreaking to see the game’s huge men — the linemen and powerful tacklers who appear indestructible on the field — reduced to staggering around, terrified and confused, so soon after leaving it. However, there is something about the film that feels distant, preventing it from achieving greatness.

Start with Omalu himself, who Smith portrays graciously (complete with a faultless Nigerian accent) but also comes across as inhumanly perfect, preventing him from being multidimensional. Moreover, despite adding a romantic life, the script does not provide him much room for complexity.

The science

The science behind CTE’s discovery is intriguing. Still, the players harmed by it are more so, yet they don’t get nearly enough screen time. It could have worked better if the movie had spent more time recounting their experiences and less time delving into subjects like Omalu’s conflict with an unsupportive, insecure coworker. Instead, Peter Landesman, the writer/director, has created a depressingly formulaic film and never conveys a sense of creativity.

Concussion is one of the few films that can be seen in conjunction with news coverage on this still-controversial topic. Stay seated until the movie’s end for an eye-opening collection of data on CTE and other relevant issues. 

For the majority of its two hours, the film is engaging and fascinating. The editing, done by Oscar winner William Goldenberg (who also edited Zero Dark Thirty, for which he was nominated) is fast and innovative, managing to infuse excitement into montages in which Omalu is doing nothing more than gazing at a pile of slides. Though the film’s plot toes the line between a clinical football story and a sugary Omalu biography, Will Smith’s recognizable charisma serves to make a difficult and uncomfortable subject approachable.

Final thoughts 

You may have come to the end of this review and feel slightly confused. That’s because Concussion is confusing. It doesn’t feel that it knows which direction to take, which leaves you feeling unfulfilled. There are a lot of good parts to the film and some bad parts. Overall, it’s a decent movie that could have been better with a few tweaks.

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