Release: Christmas Day 2015
Written by: Peter Landesman
Directed by: Peter Landesman
Concussion is the kind of movie one watches because they want to get that warm and fuzzy feeling of seeing the big bad corporation that is the NFL taken down a peg or two. They watch it and are glad to see they’re not the only ones who think poorly of a
league commissioner that officially — wait for it — owns a day of the week.
The bluntness of the title tells you everything you need to know about the story. This is the movie — well the first one, anyway — that strikes the one nerve no other football (or really any sports) drama has before. It focuses on Nigerian pathologist Dr. Benet Omalu (Will Smith), who discovers a link between severe head trauma and the physical violence of professional football.
His initial fear is confirmed by a series of deaths of former football ‘legends’ — the mourning of the passing of Junior Seau is thinly veiled — which inspires him to bring his findings to the attention of the league, much to the dismay of colleagues, including his boss Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), and the league itself, who’s not so much worried about the findings as it is about their stash of cover-ups being discovered.
Of course the league knows about the aftermath; of course they know about the concussions. They won’t know to call the epidemic something fancy like chronic traumatic encephalopathy but big businessmen like these aren’t that oblivious. They’re just really good at not talking about an issue. The confluence of power and controversy (and secret-keeping) is Roger Goodell, who, wanting to put these recent blows to his public image behind him, probably became ecstatic when an actor who looks exactly nothing like him was hired to play the part.
It’s not all Luke Wilson’s fault, though. Concussion isn’t a sensational movie; contrivances and a few shaky performances abound, but it is really timely and its convictions are strong enough to be taken seriously. Will Smith’s certainly are. He might be at a career best here, gracefully becoming rather than mimicking a personality that now will become quite famous. Smith’s typically easygoing nature has been retooled with stern coldness, a commitment to solemnity not seen since Seven Pounds.
But back to Wilson’s Goodell for a second. For a character that gets all of 5 – 10 seconds of screen time, this might seem like a lot of wasted effort but he’s actually a major concern of mine. In a film that takes place often behind closed doors, Goodell’s still the one most distanced from the controversy. We never get inside his own personal office. Wilson’s appearance in mock video footage is more obligatory than compelling, yet the brevity of that appearance — not once in the same physical space Omalu occupies — lends Goodell this mysterious aura. That’s a reality check for you: even in a film purportedly confronting the cold hard truth, Goodell remains unscathed.
The NFL as a whole remains relatively out of reach for the duration of the picture as a matter of fact. Concussion builds momentum mostly through Omalu’s several investigations that he eventually publishes with the help of Pittsburgh Steeler team doctor Julian Bales (Alec Baldwin) in a medical journal. Those findings eventually bring the heat down upon Omalu and Bales — even Wecht — the league threatening through phone calls and police investigations their very careers. But the league offices are rarely a factor here. Instead it’s the strength of Smith’s performance that gets us to really care.
Just as it may be the case for the commissioner, I think the job of supporting a story of this magnitude shouldn’t have to fall to one person. Alas, here we are.
Recommendation: Emotional story rooted in facts, Concussion offers fans of Will Smith another enjoyable outing yet the framework around him is all too familiar and forgettable. Not expecting to hear about too many outrages caused by this film, as everything we learn in this film is stuff we have already read about over the years: the NFL is a broken, money-sucking machine. What else is new?
Running Time: 123 mins.
Quoted: “When I was a boy, Heaven was here. And America, was right here. You could be anything, you could do anything. I never wanted anything as much as I wanted to be an American.”
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