With earnest biopic “Concussion,” investigative journalist-turned-writer-director Peter Landesman (“Parkland”) constructs a strong argument against the NFL’s callous dishonesty about the dangers of football. (Clearly a flurry of stories suggesting the opposite were not based on seeing the film.) Will Smith is moving and believable as brilliant and obsessive Nigerian neuropathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu, who discovered the concussion-related disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), which has driven many pro football players out of their minds.
Dr. Omalu’s reward: to be professionally destroyed and forced out of Pittsburgh by the mighty NFL. Like Boston-set journalism movie “Spotlight,” it took a truth-seeking outsider who didn’t know the rules of the game to root out a systemic problem that desperately needs fixing. But “Spotlight” writer-director Tom McCarthy is far more adept at turning that process into riveting cinema.
The crowd at the AFI FEST premiere gave Dr. Omalu a standing ovation for his heroism. What they thought of the movie is another matter. At the Q & A, Will Smith said that he was a football dad for four years: “I didn’t know! As a parent I had to be part of this. People have to know.”
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This straightforward Sony/Scott Free production (with treacly James Newton Howard score) is more effective as heartfelt agit prop than visceral drama. “I am in deep shit,” Omalu says in the middle of the night to his unborn child. “And I have not done anything wrong.”
Too many scenes allow each character to clearly articulate their point-of-view, from Dr. Omalu’s supportive wife (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and boss (always sharp Albert Brooks) to sports physician Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin) and the NFL’s Dr. Joseph Maroon (Arliss Howard).
While Sony is already gearing up a Best Actor Oscar campaign for Smith, he’s competing against a crowded field. The movie is more mainstream commercial fare than awards fodder.