Concussion is a movie with a fascinating true story to tell. For the most part, it tells that story fairly well. However, it rarely tells its story phenomenally. We’ve gotten a lot of movies over the years about righteous everymen that stand up against big, bad businesses to preserve the American Dream. Concussion comes close to blending into all of the other movies of its kind, but there are several factors that do give the film an identity of its own. For starters, having an Oscar-worthy performance from Will Smith certainly doesn’t hurt.
Smith is superb as Dr. Bennet Omalu, a brilliant pathologist originally from Nigeria. In a small – yet substantial – role, David Morse plays Mike Webster, a former Pittsburgh Steelers center suffering from dementia. Omalu performs Webster’s autopsy after he winds up dead at age 50, finding that his demise isn’t all that straightforward. Studying Webster’s brain, Omalu discovers a new degenerative disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Playing football made Webster susceptible to this disorder and he’s far from the first athlete to ever die from it. As Omalu attempts to warn the masses about CTE, however, the NFL refuses to acknowledge the facts.
In what could have been an overly sanctimonious portrayal, Smith brings a great deal of humanity and vulnerability to Omalu. He’s charismatic, charming, and confident, but also feels like the world is constantly bearing down on him. Around every corner, our hero keeps finding that honest people are rarely rewarded for their morality. Through time and persistence, however, Omalu verifies that one person’s actions can make all the difference. Again, this isn’t the most original message, although Smith’s performance gets it across with complete sincerity.
Albert Brooks does fine supporting work as Dr. Cyril Wecht, Omalu’s mentor who stands by him through thick and thin. Alec Baldwin is equally strong as Dr. Julian Bailes, a former NLF physician who turns against his team and joins Omalu’s fight. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is a wonderful young actress, but she’s saddled with a one-note emotional support role as Omalu’s wife. Their scenes together aren’t bad, but they do distract from the far more interesting plot at hand. Concussion would’ve benefited if it focused less on the love story and more on the NFL’s concussion crisis. Speaking of which, we don’t get to see much of the NFL behind closed doors here.
This is where Concussion primarily fumbles. It doesn’t make much of an attempt to really develop the National Football League or give them any redeeming qualities. They’re just kind of depicted as an ignorant organization that’s more concerned with covering problems up rather than providing solutions. Then again, the NFL did undeniably drop the ball when it came to addressing CTE with people like Roger Goodell (Luke Wilson) dodging all the hard questions. For the eye-opening truths it reveals, Concussion is a well-made, insightful picture that’s likely to intrigue any football fan. It’s just too bad that director Peter Landesman’s vision isn’t quite in the same league as Smith’s performance.