The communications revealed by the Sony hack — and scrutinized, to no small amount of controversy, by the New York Times — stirred fears that “Concussion,” the fact-based story of the Pittsburgh doctor who discovered that traumatic brain injuries were giving professional football players the equivalent of Alzheimer’s Disease, had softened the story in response to pressure from the NFL. Based on reports from the film’s AFI Fest premiere, that’s not the case, although NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, played by Luke Wilson, is only given lines that correspond to his own public statements. There are shadowy, if inconclusive, hints that the NFL had forensic pathologist Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) spied on and harassed, and that the league put its players’, and others’, safety at risk by downplaying the dangers of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
Where “Concussion,” directed and written by journalist-turned-filmmaker Peter Landesman (“Parkland”) falls down, according to the first reviews, is in converting the real-life events into a cinematic story, falling short enough that prognosticators instantly downgraded the film from awards hopeful to potential crowd-pleaser. It gets the point across — and an important point it is — but doesn’t rise above “This is an important man and these are the important things he did.” Words like “dutiful” and “requisite” pop up with frequency, as do negative comparisons to “Spotlight,” which more fluidly blends journalism and drama, suggesting “Concussion” is fitting a pre-existing template rather than creating its own.
Reviews of “Concussion”
Charlie Schmidlin, The Playlist
Popular on IndieWire
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.
Andrew Barker, Variety
Worries that it would represent a whitewash of professional football’s concussion epidemic are completely unfounded. Unfortunately, pre-release hopes that it 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 — delivering a fine, understated performance as Omalu, the doctor who discovered CTE in former NFL players — 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. There’s more than enough material here for a detail-heavy medical procedural, and the repeated willingness shown by so many Americans to shoot the messengers bringing bad news about cherished institutions presents a potent subtext. (At first, Omalu naively believes his findings will be welcomed by the NFL, who will use them to make the game safer.) Yet the film never quite trusts its audience enough to dive down any interesting rabbit holes, and it stumbles when it attempts to flesh out Omalu’s personal life with scenes that work well enough on their own, but stop the pic’s momentum in its tracks.
Stephen Farber, Hollywood Reporter
Director Peter Landesman worked as a journalist before moving into filmmaking, and he has a sense of how to grab an audience. He also showed in his underrated film, “Parkland,” a drama about the Kennedy assassination, that he has a real gift in drawing strong performances from a large cast. As a piece of filmmaking, “Concussion” is competent but not inspired. The brief flashes of violence on the football field make their point in a rather pro forma way; they don’t quite achieve the necessary impact. James Newton Howard’s score is sometimes effective and sometimes bombastic. On the other hand, Oscar winning editor William Goldenberg (“Argo”) helps keep the film hurtling forward. In the end, this film is vital in uncovering a hazard that was kept hidden for far too long. At last the secret is out, and Landesman and his fine cast will help to keep the conversation going.
Anne Thompson, Thompson on Hollywood
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).
Inkoo Kang, The Wrap
Pretty much everything else in “Concussion” feels requisite, from the montages of real-life athletes ramming their skulls together to the football-crazy ally (Alec Baldwin) and the much-younger love interest (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). The rising actress, so marvelous as the star of last year’s “Belle” and “Beyond the Lights,” is saddled with the film’s most tone-deaf monologue, which compares a couple of threatening phone calls from NFL defenders that Omalu receives to (what is heavily implied to be) her rape. Representing a weaselly Roger Goodell is Luke Wilson (in a glorified cameo as the NFL commissioner). The league takes plenty of hits despite earlier reports that Sony had blunted the script’s criticisms of the NFL. “Concussion” ultimately avoids any radical conclusion; it simply advocates for players to know all they’re in for when they get on the field.
CONCUSSION: Important issue. Deserves a better movie. #AFIFest2015
— Glenn Whipp (@GlennWhipp) November 11, 2015
CONCUSSION’s an intriguing cousin to SPOTLIGHT: Both about outsiders (and reluctant insiders) taking down entrenched, systemic corruption
— Kyle Buchanan (@kylebuchanan) November 11, 2015
Concussion pulls no punches in making NFL a Big Tobacco-like villain. You keep waiting for it to let league off the hook but it never does.
— Steven Zeitchik (@ZeitchikLAT) November 11, 2015
Concussion spanks the NFL big time, but Goodell is portrayed only in reenactments of publicly documented appearances/testimony
— jen yamato (@jenyamato) November 11, 2015
Concussion damns the NFL to hell. Shame that none of the real life figures come across as real life people. #AFIFEST
— Nigel M. Smith (@nigelmfs) November 11, 2015