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.
The one to lead us through these breakthroughs is Bennet Omalu (played by Smith), a Nigerian-born forensic pathologist in Pittsburgh who, in 2002, first noticed abnormalities in the brains of professional football players. Deeply religious, wedded to the American Dream, and devoted to the “science of death,” he immerses himself in his work, speaking to his cadavers for answers and listening to Teddy Pendergrass tunes while doing so. When former Steelers center Mike Webster (a solid as usual David Morse) dies of cardiac arrest, found dead in the truck where he lived in mental and physical pain, the body goes to Omalu and begs the question: how does a local legend waste away into homelessness and self-harm, and eventually death?
After Webster, the cases of Steelers players rack up: Terry Long, a guard who battled depression and memory loss before drinking antifreeze; Andre Waters, a safety with a similar history who took his own life. They lead Omalu to a newly coined term — Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) — and as he gains allies in doctors Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin) and Ron Hamilton (Stephen Moyer), the NFL begins to take notice and attack.
Landesman’s approach is all old-fashioned cover-up saga, working from Jeanne Marie Laskas’ 2009 GQ article ‘Game Brain’. He pits Omalu against suits in the NFL as the ultimate David vs. Goliath story, and constantly frames Pittsburgh’s jewel — the Heinz Stadium — like some all-seeing eye in the background to remind us. The film never goes full gumshoe, but there is the Unknown Car following Omalu’s pregnant wife Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) home, and later on, pensive meetings behind glass doors with faceless businessmen.
Thankfully, the chords of humanism come in with Omalu, as he grapples with having to assert his abilities while questioning the worth of fighting such a prolonged, and seemingly one-sided battle. Smith, firmly in “Ali”-level deep-dive mode, feels this dynamic out and delivers a performance that shows why he still has star power. His magnetism reflects in his embodiment of Omalu, as does his lilting Nigerian accent, which stands out to the ear for the first five minutes, then beds down and rarely wavers.
The histrionic pitch that absolutely steamrolled Landesman’s first film, the Kennedy assassination drama “Parkland,” has been toned down here (the soaring score by James Newton Howard, less so). The ensemble gel together with finesse, as Morse and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje do great work as troubled NFL players, and Albert Brooks and Baldwin supply the few lighthearted moments of the film. Mbatha-Raw barely registers though in her supportive wife role, which is more a function of the screenplay than her acting. So keen is Landesman to accelerate past her scenes, there’s a boggling moment where she is waiting at home — dressed and made up to go dancing — in preparation for Omalu to enter and tell her they’re going dancing.
Other cameo set dressing includes Luke Wilson as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, one entire aspect where the script seems terribly truncated. Various actors like Hill Harper and Arliss Howard follow suit as part of the NFL threat, showing up as vague intimidation before vanishing completely. It abstracts the stakes, and by the end of the film, which circles to a lifeless climax that all but happens off-screen, the feeling left over is more a tepid acceptance than empowerment.
A lack of pace and illuminating insight are what keep “Concussion” from lasting resonance, its flaws threatening to dull the issue for drama in a way that the NFL could only appreciate. Even as the performances are compellingly rendered, what’s most effective in this case is reality. Like docs such as “Head Games” or “The Crash Reel,” Landesman splices in montages of actual head-on collisions to visualize what’s at stake. Their jolting potency in fact hurts the film and helps the cause: in one effective minute it makes the argument Hollywood needs two hours and Will Smith to tell. [C]