Concussion (2016) – Movie Review
Directed by: Peter Landesman
Written by: Peter Landesman
Starring: Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Albert Brooks & David Morse
Music: James Newton Howard
Release Date: February 12th 2016
When it comes to big, evil, immoral corporations it’s hard to find any that are as bad as the National Football League. However, when it comes to portraying their acts on film, corporate-interests normally end up getting in the way. The NFL broadcast their games on numerous TV stations, many of which are owned by broadcasters who also have an affiliation with movie studios. Disney, for example, have a conflict of interest in distributing a movie that portrays the NFL in a bad light, because they own ESPN.
Surprisingly, it’s fallen to distributor Columbia Pictures (part of Sony) to make this NFL-takedown movie based on the GQ exposé detailing the serious mental issues affecting NFL players thanks to the findings from Doctor Bennet Omalu. But Omalu’s initial findings were discredited by the NFL and fans of the game tried to ignore his warnings and his findings and it would seem the same has happened with the movie ‘Concussion‘ as actor Will Smith was hoping to lead this awards-hopeful to a touch-down, but instead wound up empty handed. Is that because ‘Concussion‘ is too critical of a national institution or is the movie just not worthy enough of adoration?
Bennet Omalu (Smith) is a forensic pathologist in Pittsburgh who handles the autopsy of NFL player Mike Webster (Morse) but is unable to determine why he died. Through extensive research, he discovers a brain abnormality that can only be diagnosed posthumously and cannot be identified prior to death which chokes the brain as a result of repeated blows to the head playing American Football, which he dubs Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). However, the NFL attempt to discredit Omalu’s findings which puts his profession and wellbeing at risk as the corporation refuses to acknowledge the issue despite the bodies of young men continuing to pile up, meaning Omalu has to team up with former-NFL Doctor, Julian Bailes (Baldwin) to convince the NFL to acknowledge their findings and save lives.
All biases on the table here; I don’t get sports. I don’t dislike sports, I don’t dislike people who like sports, I just don’t get them. I don’t get the spectator culture that surrounds sporting events (sans the Olympics, World Cup etc.) and I don’t see why people get invested in whether or not billionaires score a point or not. However, I loath sports as a business. It’s exploitative, it benefits very few people while oppressing a vast majority and it essentially promotes exclusion by pitting people against each other for the sake of profit. With that out of the way, I was looking forward to seeing a relatively impartial movie studio release a movie like ‘Concussion‘ where they could use a mainstream platform to talk about Omalu’s findings and inform people.
And I’m still looking forward to seeing that movie, because ‘Concussion‘, while highly critical of the NFL, still feels restrained and too-manufactured as an awards-contender.
The story itself is solid and ‘Concussion‘ is structured relatively well, but it’s the details and the writing where it feels like ‘Concussion‘ is over-thinking the source material. The movie opens with Omalu in court acting as a medical witness and the first two minutes has him listing off his numerous qualifications. Its a funny and informative way to immediately let the audience know that Omalu knows his stuff and is someone worth listening to. But as the movie goes on, ‘Concussion‘ throws arbitrary road-blocks at Omalu that simply aren’t needed.
He has a co-worker at the coroner’s office who belittles him and chastises him for caring about his deceased paitients and showing them respect. Guess what, that co-worker was a creation solely for the movie. At one point, the police show up at the office and charge Omalu’s boss, played by a brilliant Albert Brooks, for arbitrary, petty fraud just to get at Omalu…but that also never happened in real life. The NFL discredit Omalu’s work causing a public backlash including death threats and stalking, which DID happen, but while in the movie Omalu’s wife, Prema played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, suffers a miscarriage as a result of this stress…that never happened in real life.
You have a story where a man is trying to save people’s lives through science and information but is being prevented from doing so by one of the biggest, shadiest corporations in the world for the sake of profit. You don’t need to alter that story or present additional road-blocks because that base-narrative is compelling enough.
Does a movie need to follow history to the letter and not embellish? No, of course not. But with ‘Concussion‘, it’s not only unnecessary but it also leads to an incredibly slow second half where no progression is being made because Omalu is being faced with so many hindrances that never even happened in real life. As a result, this 122 minute feels like a 150 minutes and the third act of the movie is an absolute slog to sit through.
Part of this comes from the lack of investment in Omalu and Prema’s romance in the movie because Prema has no influence over the narrative and only acts as moral support. Initially I thought that it was because Prema didn’t have much presence in the real events and that ‘Concussion‘ made her more prominent in order to give the film more of a female-influence and while I’m okay with that in principal…in the actual, real-life story, Prema helped Omalu with his research and wasn’t JUST an emotional anchor. If the creative team wanted a more prominent female-influence…why didn’t they just follow the actual events and make her useful to the narrative?
It just makes you wonder where the movie’s priorities are in regards to portraying the real life events because they actively distort the narrative but also use real life, dash-cam footage of NFL star Justin Strzelczyk crashing his car as a result of CTE. The movie also doesn’t commit to being critical of the NFL because while there are a few scenes of the higher-ups of the company acting incredibly immoral and reprehensible, the movie does stop every so often to talk about how great the NFL is. ‘Concussion‘ just doesn’t go all the way and while I give it props for tackling the story in the first place, I am disappointed that they felt the need to reign themselves in so frequently.
That’s not to say that ‘Concussion‘ is a bad movie, in fact it has some very strong elements, particularly its cast. An actor like Will Smith may not be a great choice to cast as the lead in a biopic because his own persona and charisma would likely prevent people from seeing the character he’s portraying. However, after 5 minutes I stopped seeing Will Smith playing Dr. Bennet Omalu and started seeing Bennet Omalu. That could be because we’re seeing Will Smith appearing in less movies in recent years so we’re not as accustomed to his natural on-screen wit and charm, but in ‘Concussion‘ he does hit it out of the park. His Nigerian accent is spot-on, his quiet demeanour is humbling to watch and makes it all the more effective when he does lash out in frustration as his attempts to assist the NFL and save the lives of their players continues to fall on deaf, ignorant ears.
“Do you know what history does to people…trained physicians who choose to ignore science? History laughs! If you continue to deny my work, men YOUR men continue to die. Their families left in ruins! Tell the truth!
Albert Brooks is a great counter-point to the serious subject-matter without, strictly speaking, being comic relief. Alec Baldwin is great and gets some effective moments towards the end of the movie and while Gugu Mbatha-Raw really doesn’t get much to work with, she does well with what she has. Special credit must also be given to David Morse, Matt Willig, Richard T. Jones and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje for portraying real-life NFL figures who ultimately succumbed to CTE in some harrowing and effective scenes where these people are losing their minds to something the NFL would rather ignore.
The movie does represent the broad strokes of the real-life event well, such as the parallels with the Tobacco-Industry who refused to acknowledge research being done by people proving that cigarette smoke contributes to several diseases and the fact that these events weren’t very long ago makes the movie all the more effective. The end credits, in particular, do a great job at hitting home how terrible the NFL behaved and how they STILL don’t fully understand the gravity of their inaction.
When the movie focuses on aspects like this, it’s engaging and seeing Omalu try to fight such a powerful corporate system makes him a great protagonist. It’s just when the movie side-lines that to focus on fictional drama and sporadically pandering to the NFL where ‘Concussion‘ loses a lot of its strength.
Peter Landesman, who directs AND writes, does a great job working with the actors and portraying the damage that the NFL was causing to players and their families but some of the camera-work feels a bit lax at times. Conversation sequences don’t have the flair that they should and the same goes for sequences of Omalu researching and performing his autopsies. Movies like ‘Spotlight‘, ‘Brooklyn‘ and ‘The Big Short‘ have been able to make movies almost entirely comprised of dialogue riveting and it feels like ‘Concussion‘ needed that inspired touch. James Newton Howard’s music is solid and the use of actual NFL footage as well as footage of Justin Strzelczyk’s death was appropriately hard-hitting.
It’s easy to admire the creative team for making a movie like ‘Concussion‘ in the first place, but it’s disappointing that they restrained themselves and felt the need to contort a story that was already perfectly fascinating in the first place, including some very questionable and counter-intuitive fictional inclusions. Will Smith gives a wonderful lead performance and the rest of the cast do strong work as well, but it’s a shame that this anti-NFL movie felt the need to backtrack so frequently, lest they hurt the feelings of people who knowingly ruined people’s lives. It’s just the principal of the thing that irks me and holds back what should have been a must-see biopic into something relatively ho-hum and average.
I give ‘Concussion‘ 2 and a half stars out of 5.
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Posted: 18th Feb 16