Film Review – Concussion
Let me tell you something: I’m a big sports fan. I grew up playing basketball – many a night after school you could find me on the playground participating in pickup games. I’m a huge football nut as well. When I’m not delving into movies, I’m usually following local teams (Go Seahawks! Go Huskies!), anticipating the next upcoming game. This love for sports obviously made me interested in seeing writer/director Peter Landesman’s Concussion (2015).
One of the biggest issues plaguing professional football is the danger of players suffering concussions and the ramifications of those injuries. Football is the most popular sport in America, yet it’s also the most violent of the major sports. Players that weigh anywhere from 200 to 320 pounds collide against each other sometimes at full sprint. When players strike each other’s heads, it causes brain injury that can have lasting effects, such as memory loss, migraines, and even a change in personality. This disease is known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE. It cannot be found on any x-ray, and can only be diagnosed after death (according to the film). Every time a player is hit, the force is comparable to being in a car accident. Throughout a player’s career, they’re hit tens of thousands of times. You do the math.
This is a pressing and relevant issue that’s still going on today. You may say, “Well, obviously football is a dangerous sport. Players should know the risk.” The problem is that many players are not aware of the potential dangers of the game because evidence had been withheld by the National Football League. They don’t have the data to keep them informed, they’re encouraged to play through the pain. One of the more effective moments is when Landesman inserts real life footage of games, where real players go through real hits and we can see the immediate effect as they stumble and are carried off the field.
The discovery of CTE is fascinating. We follow Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith), a Nigerian pathologist working in a medical examiner’s office in Pittsburgh, PA in the early 2000s. Smith – whose immense onscreen charisma can sometimes work to his disadvantage – dials it way down in the role of Dr. Omalu. Smith plays the role with a grounded reality, and when the script calls for him to reach an emotional high, Smith nails the target dead center. We never see Smith mugging for the camera, every stylistic choice he makes feels appropriate.
Early into the plot, Dr. Omalu finds a disturbing number of bodies coming in with strange symptoms. Evidence of people with mental disorders, inflicting harm against themselves and others. Yet all of them were healthy people in their youth, and were all football players. Healthy men don’t just lose their minds once they turn fifty, and so Dr. Omalu goes on a quest to dig deeper for an explanation. The sequences of Dr. Omalu going through his scientific research is gripping. Landesman does an effective job (along with his editor William Goldenberg) of stringing the pieces together so we can understand how Dr. Omalu came to his findings. It’s like seeing the work of a journalist, but here the testimony is in the lab samples.
These sequences take place in the first half, making it easily the strongest section. It’s the second half – where Dr. Omalu and his associates attempt to expose the truth of how the NFL hid information from the public – where things fall apart. Landesman attempts to place the tone of the narrative similar to a political thriller. Unfortunately that sinks the whole piece, because 1) This story is still going on, and there is more information that has to be uncovered for us to get a full view of this issue, and 2) Landesman attempts to paint the NFL as an evil organization comparable to the mob. It’s no question that the NFL is only interested in its own success, but when we have scenes where Dr. Omalu gets threatening calls in the middle of the night, or when his wife Prema (an underutilized Gugu Mbatha-Raw) gets the jitters because a mysterious vehicle follows her home, we get the sense that Landesman is playing up these moments for manipulation instead of emotional truth.
The strikes against the NFL don’t have enough bite. This is because, as the story unfolds, we realize that this is not about the NFL or concussions, but about Dr. Omalu. Landesman makes the error of taking a significant amount of time with Dr. Omalu’s backstory: his upbringing in Nigeria and his attempt to integrate into American society. The intention is pure, but it’s to the detriment of the primary goal. Juxtaposing Dr. Omalu’s desire for “The American Dream” with trying to expose the NFL for dirty deeds created an imbalance that lasts all the way through the story. How are we supposed to take the issue of CTE seriously when we have to go through scenes of Dr. Omalu awkwardly dancing in a club, trying to win the affections of his future wife?
I don’t think Concussion hates the game of football. One of the more integral roles is Dr. Julian Bailes, played by the always great Alec Baldwin. Dr. Bailes is a former team doctor of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and holds immense guilt for not doing enough to protect the players he oversaw. A key scene has Dr. Bailes describing the beauty of the game, and how – when things go right – it can be as fluid and artistic as Shakespeare. I’m glad this scene exists, but it’s a strong piece of a problematic whole. In a year where Spotlight showed us how a great investigative procedural can be made, Concussion falters in trying to play up its dramatic tension.