CONCUSSION (2015, directed by Peter Landesman, 123 minutes, USA)
BY BEN LEHMAN Concussion tells the story of Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian immigrant, who first connected the dots between professional football and the epidemic of traumatic injuries it inflicts on players, and then stood up to the NFL when they tried to cover it up. While Omalu, portrayed by Will Smith, ultimately succeeds in blowing the whistle on the NFL’s suits, the film falls short of the goal line.
When Dr. Omalu performs an autopsy on the body of “Iron” Mike Webster, a retired Pittsburgh Steeler, he discovers abnormalities in his brain that trigger a post-mortem diagnosis of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a disease caused by repeated head trauma and one that many professional football players suffer, driving them to madness and suicide. Eventually, Dr. Omalu discovers that the NFL is fully aware of the disease and rightfully sees it as an existential threat to future of professional football, which is why they have been quietly hiding this from both the players and the fans.
In Will Smith’s hands Omalu is depicted as a good man who just wants to tell the truth, and he has the naïveté of an immigrant who cannot comprehend the greed-diven dishonesty of a major American corporation. Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Prema Mutiso, a fellow African immigrant and Omalu’s love interest. Luke Wilson portrays Roger Goodell as a negligent and borderline shady NFL commissioner. Alec Baldwin and Albert Brooks deserve praise for their roles as Dr. Julian Bailes and Dr. Cyril Wecht, respectively, with the former serving as Omalu’s closest ally in the fight against the NFL.
While Concussion’s intentions are as noble as the doctor’s pursuit of the truth, it ultimately lacks a defined narrative, and tries to be too many things at once. It’s a story about the search for the truth while lacking the suspense and tension of a whistleblower film. It’s also the story of an underdog immigrant striving to achieve the American dream while taking on a powerful adversary. Omalu succeeds in the end, of course, but the viewer feels slightly unsatisfied. The film also depicts the budding romance between Prema and Omalu, but lacks the emotional power of a love story to get the viewer truly invested. None of these plotlines are properly fleshed out in order to form a strong, cohesive story.
Concussion had the potential to be a thrilling drama, but ultimately gets lost in a tangled fray of plotlines that leaves the viewer wanting more. While Dr. Omalu succeeds in his quest and the NFL is forced to acknowledge the damage of football to its players, this information is only shown in notes at the end, as if an afterthought. The issue of CTE in professional football is still ongoing, with thousands of players filing lawsuits against the NFL, and perhaps if the film had waited a few years, it could have provided a more satisfactory resolution.