At its core, Concussion is a film about the importance of knowledge and how society processes scientific information in the face of incredible traditional pressure. The 2015 picture is written and directed by Peter Landesman, who investigated the cultural loss of virtue associated with the John F. Kennedy assassination in 2013’s Parkland.
Based on the 2009 GQ article “Game Brain” by Jeanne Marie Laskas, Concussion explores the efforts of Nigerian-American forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu. As the first to publish scientific findings of chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE, Omalu found himself in a battle against the National Football League as they launched efforts to suppress his research.
Will Smith stars as Omalu, a pathologist working for the Allegheny County coroner’s office in Pennsylvania. After former Pittsburgh Steelers centre Mike Webster (David Morse) is found dead in his pickup truck, Omalu does the autopsy and discovers something strange. It turns out that Webster’s death was caused by the effects of repeated blows to the head, something Omalu terms as CTE.
Together with former Steelers team doctor Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin) and country coroner Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), Omalu publishes a paper of his findings. The NFL rejects it. Omalu continues to follow the science as more dead football players show up with symptoms of CTE and the league, including new commissioner Roger Goodell (Luke Wilson) continues the work of stonewalling the science.
The NFL’s lack of regard when it comes to science and conventional wisdom has been well-documented. Nothing gets in the way of the corporation that, as Brooks’ character notes, “owns a day of the week.” Football is presented as the ultimate American way of life. It’s not just a sport and messing with it, regardless of troublesome things like science, is just not tolerated.
Concussion does an excellent job setting this up and it establishes the NFL as the true bogeyman of the tale, with the ferocity of the game the only thing that matters. This is the same in other contact sports, with team doctors primarily tasked with getting players back in the game. Getting one’s bell rung is a rite of passage, an inevitable element of playing a “man’s game.”
Most people know better. And most people should be incensed when it comes to a corporation that doesn’t value the welfare of its players, but Smith’s Omalu encounters a world where people don’t want to know the truth. He receives livid phone calls. His wife (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is tailed by featureless stalkers. The loyal opposition calls him a witch doctor from some dark part of the world.
Landesman’s movie is effective because it isn’t shy about those details. It doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to nailing the NFL and its celebration of viciousness to the floor. It considers the players as real human beings, which means it also plays fast and loose with the melodrama. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje is one of many quality actors brought in to play deceased players.
This is not a subtle movie. It is full of speeches and there isn’t a lot of skill in its construction. Landesman seems passionate enough about the subject and cinematographer Salvatore Totino is behind some terrific shots, but Concussion lacks that daring quality. It’s all very conventional, like it could be a movie-of-the-week, and that undermines its cinematic efficacy.
But it’s not a bad movie, either. Smith puts in an admirable performance and Baldwin is also very good as a man who knows he’s made his living in dubious fashion. Brooks steals every scene he’s in and provides the film with life. He almost single-handedly provides the sardonic edge, pushing Concussion when it requires a little something extra.
While Concussion is a satisfactory motion picture, it leaves echoes of what might’ve been. Imagining this sprawl of characters and corruption with a sort of Big Short vulgarity is tempting, as Landesman’s lack of pulse is inhibiting at times. But it’s still a capable, significant medical thriller and it still sheds some much-needed light on that most hallowed of Sunday traditions.