Will Smith shall make his next big screen appearance in Concussion, the upcoming true story-based drama about Dr. Bennet Omalu (Smith): an U.S. immigrant and forensic neuropathologist who learns of chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE, a brain injury stemming from repetitive head trauma, while examining the bodies of deceased former professional football players. However, in his efforts to inform the public of his findings, Omalu winds up at odds with the NFL - and all the resources the organization has at its disposal, as it seeks to keep Omalu's research out of the public eye.
Concussion, which is based on the article "Game Brain" by Jeanne Marie Laskas, was scripted and directed by Peter Landesman: the journalist-turned filmmaker who wrote and directed the 2013 JFK assassination drama/thriller Parkland; Landesman also penned the film Kill the Messenger about the late journalist Gary Webb, so he's already carved out a niche for himself by making this type of docudrama fare. The trailers for Concussion has certainly indicated that there is an interesting story to be told here - and the movie's newly-unveiled UK trailer (see above) does the same.
Stories about whistleblowers and/or investigations that reveal corruption within larger institutions have a long history of being adapted into compelling films, whether we're taking about the multiple Oscar-winning All the President's Men or, to cite the movie that Concussion more immediately brings to mind, director Michael Mann's 1999 tobacco industry whistleblower drama/thriller, The Insider.
Question is, while Concussion boasts worthwhile subject matter and a strong cast - one that includes such names as Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle), Albert Brooks (Drive), Alec Baldwin (Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation), and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Trumbo), among others - is it an example of good filmmaking... or mostly just Oscar bait?
The first round of Concussion reviews have made their way online, following the film's screening at the 2015 AFI Fest - and thus far critics are split, with the film at a 57% Fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes after 14 reviews. First, here are telling excerpts from some of the negative reviews (click the respective links for the full reviews):
Variety - Andrew Barker
...Pre-release hopes that ["Concussion"] would do for crusading forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu what Michael Mann’s “The Insider” did for big tobacco whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand are equally unfounded, as the film’s attempt to marry an earnest public-health expose with a corporate-malfeasance thriller and a sweet immigrant love story never comes together in a satisfying way. Effective enough as a cautionary tale about willful ignorance and as a showcase for Will Smith... the film is let down by its confused and cliche-riddled screenplay, which struggles mightily to take a complex story and finesse it to fit story beats it was never meant to hit.
The Wrap - Inkoo Kang
The tale of one doctor’s crusade to tell the truth about the devastating consequences of chronic head injuries among football players is timely but dreary and dramatically inept. In fact, the film is pure Oscar bait, complete with a cornball monologue delivered by star Will Smith about what makes America great.
The Playlist - Charlie Schmidlin
Previously rumored as neutered by the very group it’s critiquing, fear not: “Concussion” actually retains the startling truths about the effects of brain trauma in the NFL. If your first question is, “What startling truths?” then permit the film — dutifully written and directed by Peter Landesman and featuring stellar work by Will Smith — to elaborate. But ultimately it’s the struggle to couch those facts in a satisfying arc that hobbles the piece; it’s the difference between a well-acted vehicle for awareness, rather than the alert and pointed scientific drama toward which it aims.
However, while most critics seem to agree that Concussion is rather heavy-handed storytelling on the whole, others feel it's an engaging work and well-acted work of cinema nonetheless - as evidenced by the following review excerpts:
THR - Stephen Farber
[Concussion's] summary may make the film sound like an academic paper, but it’s thoroughly engrossing and entertaining. Director Peter Landesman worked as a journalist before moving into filmmaking, and he has a sense of how to grab an audience... [He] has a real gift in drawing strong performances from a large cast... As a piece of filmmaking, Concussion is competent but not inspired.
Screen Daily - Tom Grierson
[Concussion is] a heavy-handed true-life drama that nonetheless is quite articulate about power and corruption in the United States — and how greedy, money-making monoliths make outsiders of us all. Fuelled by a quietly morally outraged performance by Will Smith, this muckraking film can be conventional in its execution, but if the telling leaves much to be desired, the story itself is plainly affecting.
Cinemablend - Eric Eisenberg
Concussion is driven forward by a legitimately eye-opening investigation into some disturbing territory, and that element alone makes it worth seeing and notable – despite the flaws featured in the classic David vs. Goliath story at its center. It’s affecting and effective material, and it may very well change the way audiences watch their favorite sport.
It remains to be seen how Concussion's overall critical reception changes once more reviewers have seen the movie, right now it sounds as though whatever traction the film might gain during the current awards season race may be based more on its subject matter and good intentions - not necessarily for its merits as a creative accomplishment. Then again, it also appears that Smith's performance and the real-life story behind Concussion may be justification enough for those who are interested in the film to give it a look, when it arrives.
Concussion opens in U.S. theaters on December 25th, 2015.