Concussion isn’t a great biopic but it tells a great story – thanks to stirring subject matter and a quality performance from Will Smith.
When retired Pittsburgh Steelers center, and Hall of Famer, Mike Webster (David Morse) commits suicide, after months of erratic behavior, his body comes before Nigerian-born forensic neuropathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith). Charged with determining the true cause of Webster’s death, the affliction that lead to the Football player’s descent into mental instability, Omalu formulates a theory: repeated blows to the head, as experienced by football players over a decade on the field, irreversibly damages the brain – leading to dangerous mental impairments (depression, anxiety, memory loss, and aggression, among other symptoms).
Omalu and his fellow researchers titled the disorder CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) and began publishing their findings – in order to educate players, and the general public, on the potential dangers of football. Omalu’s goal was to “fix the problem” but the NFL perceived the doctor’s findings as a threat to the sport, and their business, attempting to discredit the link between football and CTE. Unfortunately, as more former players turned up dead, following a rapid decline in mental health, that link and the NFL’s complacency, became increasingly difficult for Omalu, as well as the general public, to ignore.
Inspired by the high profile deaths of NFL stars Dave Duerson and Junior Seau, as well as Jeanne Marie Laskas’ GQ report “Game Brain”, Concussion was initially set to be helmed by Ridley Scott; however, it was writer/director Peter Landesman (Parkland) that would ultimately carry the project from page to screen. Landesman’s sophomore feature film, Concussion manages to balance chronicling Omalu’s personal struggles, depicting the NFL’s reluctant (and at times hostile) response, as well as educating moviegoers on the mechanics of CTE, for a solid, albeit relatively uninventive, biopic.
The filmmaker succeeds in Concussion‘s two main goals: a showcase for Will Smith’s talent and portraying CTE with relatable humility. Still, Concussion is packed by tropes of the docudrama genre – with little but broad plot beats, basic character motivations, and straightforward cinematography to carry audiences through Omalu’s showdown with the NFL. Landsman has written and directed a quality film, albeit one that takes few artistic risks. The story is important and will leave a lasting impression on interested viewers; yet, how that story is presented will be less memorable than its message.
A thoughtful depiction of Omalu is Concussion‘s biggest achievement – a combination of Landesman’s writing, Will Smith’s performance, and the real Omalu’s eccentric charm. Selfless and humble, Omalu is, on paper, the perfect juxtaposition for a story about callous executives that choose to protect a sporting institution rather than protect players. At times, Landesman has trouble keeping the film objective, allowing his respect for Omalu to paint a white and black tale of well-intentioned scientists facing-down corporate villains. It’s a forgivable shortcoming, and a common trap of similar biopics, but Omalu is portrayed without flaw, while nearly every one around him is presented as a one-note caricature – designed to represent, with a heavy hand, various voices within the CTE debate.
Nevertheless, even though the characters around Omalu are mostly foils for Concussion‘s star subject, Will Smith supplies one of the best, and most thoughtful performances of his career. In brief moments, Smith’s effort to replicate Omalu’s mannerisms and cadence can be a distraction, when the A-lister acts too hard; yet, more often than not, it’s a great turn – punctuated with enthusiasm and respect that will endear audiences to Omalu as a real person off-screen. As with the overarching film, Smith is solid and works in shedding light on the doctor and his research, but falls short of being a game-changing part for the actor, especially with The Pursuit of Happyness and Ali still topping his resume.
Major supporting performances are equally affecting, most notably: Alec Baldwin as Dr. Julian Bailes, Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Prema Mutiso, and Albert Brooks as Dr. Cyril H. Wecht. Both Brooks and Mbatha-Raw are confined to standard, though still impactful, biopic outlines – as a no-nonsense mentor and supportive love interest, respectively but Baldwin is afforded more to do as an empathetic former NFL team doctor who partners with Omalu in order to promote CTE research and pay honor to the patients he lost to CTE.
The rest of the cast is comprised of one or two-scene characters brought to life by actors with passing resemblance to real-life retired football players and CTE sufferers (including Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Dave Duerson, Matt Willig as Justin Strzelczyk, and Richard T. Jones as Andre Waters), doctors (Eddie Marsan as Dr. Steven DeKosky), as well as NFL executives (Luke Wilson as Roger Goodell), that all played a role in Omalu’s story. Each performer is convincing in their role, especially those portraying former football players, fleshing out the world and politics of Concussion – but few outside of Omalu, Bailes, Mutiso, and Wecht, are anything more than surface-layer cogs in the narrative.
Like a lot of biopics, Concussion succeeds at its primary aim – providing viewers with an entertaining glimpse into the story of its principal topic; in this case: Dr. Omalu and the struggles of CTE researchers. Landesman delivers a captivating jumping off point for viewers to learn more but falls short in elevating docudrama filmmaking; instead, setting a standard series of triumphs and setbacks for Omalu and his partners to navigate. Ultimately, Concussion isn’t a great biopic but it tells a great story – thanks to stirring subject matter and a quality performance from Will Smith.
Concussion runs 123 minutes and is Rated PG-13 for thematic material including some disturbing images, and language. Now playing in theaters.
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