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Thursday, December 24, 2015

Movie Review: 'Concussion'

The NFL head trauma drama is by-the-numbers Oscar bait.

Review by Matt Cummings

It's hard to find a film these days which surrounds a current event: studios spend so much time worrying about lawsuits that many times a 'topical subject' really isn't so. Fortunately, the film Concussion arrives just in time to reignite old anger about a continuing NFL cover-up. Unfortunately, it's paint-by-the-numbers Oscar bait that neither reaches high emotional drama nor tells the whole story.

When former Pittsburgh Steelers star Mike Webster (a very good David Morse) is found dead of an apparent suicide, the pathologist Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) discovers that Webster's brain has been badly damaged through years of hard hits on the gridiron. As he begins to uncover a frightening amount of former players that have also died prematurely, Omalu brands the deaths a result of CTE. But instead of listening to him, the NFL begins a smear campaign to discredit Omalu and those who partnered with him, including the Steeler's former head doctor (Alec Baldwin). As the amount of deaths grow, Omalu must decide whether to fight a corporate giant or bury the evidence so that he and his wife (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) can live a normal life.

Writer/Director Peter Landesman adapts well enough an article by GQ Journalist Jeanne Marie Laskas. He tells the story as it happened, sharply focusing on Omalu's plight. But Landesman fails to ignite his tale and of the NFL's coverup in any sort of gratifying way. It's hard to find that balance between embellishing for effect and letting the story and performances power the film; here, the mix just doesn't work. Sure it's effective at showing how the NFL attempted to discredit Omalu, how he fled to California, and was later vindicated by other high-profile suicides. But there's too many heart-pulling moments that feel contrived, especially the lengthy epilogue by Smith. Then there's the "what happened to everyone" cards at the end that many times are written for effect over matter. The Big Short did a much better job of viscerally painting the housing crisis through its expert camerawork and unique portrayals. Concussion just feels like a paint-by-the-numbers system: insert emotional dialogue here in response to big corporate action there.

Smith is fine as Omalu, doing his best to capture the thick Nigerian accent. He's known lately for these emotional portrayals, but again Landesman doesn't quite get everything out of Smith. He reads the lines, does the accent, but fails to imbue Omalu as much else but a precise and caring person who talks to the dead CSI Miami style. I also recognize the importance of side stories, but Mbatha-Raw takes center stage too often without helping to drive the main issue which is the NFL cover-up. She is ill-prepared for the role and thus fails to deliver a powerful performance. The same goes with Smith's boss played by Albert Brooks, who seems to deliver the same Cynical Whatever film after film. But his scenes with Smith are the best of the film, adding a layer of emotion that sadly didn't extend throughout the picture.

Concussion also doesn't tell a complete story about CTE. There's Boston University's Dr. Ann McKee and her independent studies of 79 players, which found that 76 of them had CTE. And there's also Chris Nowinski, the former player who helped McKee secure many of those brains. The movie leaves out these and other champions including wives of former players, choosing emotion over facts. In deciding to make the story a personal struggle of Omalu vs the NFL, it mischaracterizes the scope of the research that was actually being carried out.

The NFL's complicity in CTE is horrible and disgusting. Fans should be upset. No professional football player should have to go through what Webster did, and no one should have their reputations destroyed like Omalu experienced for doing good clinical work. Unfortunately, Concussion won't go very far in refocusing efforts to shed additional light on a subject that requires our deepest commitment. Like Omalu's autopsies, it's far too clinical in telling its tale. Check out PBS' Frontline - League of Denial: it's far more encompassing (and therefore more powerful) than this.

Concussion is rated PG-13 for thematic material including some disturbing images, and language and has a runtime of 123 minutes.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Matt Cummings at @mfc90125.

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