Concussion: A Strong Team Doesn’t Quite Deliver on All Its Promise

ConcussionAmerica’s love affair with football is no secret. And the inherent violence in the sport, the almost obsessive need for bone-crushing crashes and heart-stopping groans at each down, is virtual law. It is with this in mind that Concussion enters our collective consciousness, the story of a much darker side of the beloved sport. And as the story of Dr. Bennett Omalu’s discovery of CTE, the specter that terrified the NFL unfolds on screen, audiences will find it hard to look away.

Premise: In Pittsburgh, accomplished pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu uncovers the truth about brain damage in professional football players who suffer repeated concussions in the course of normal play. Result: A fair but disjointed biopic.

Concussion follows the standard biopic formula, offering three basic story lines: first, the story itself, of CTE, the great medical discovery Omalu’s (Will Smith) makes after the madness and subsequent death toll of aging Pittsburgh Steelers players mounts. Next, we have Omalu’s victimization at the hands of the NFL and rabid Steelers fans apparently bent on his destruction and erasure from history. And then, of course, the depiction of Omalu as more than a doctor but as a man, with human needs met only by a woman that literally falls into his life.

The first storyline is compelling. The science is straightforward and delivered smoothly for the most part. His discovery spreads like wildfire and engulfs the screen, delivering exhilaration for much of the first half of the film.

The plot does suffer after a time by the very disease it is depicting, doctors mindlessly regurgitating the same facts over and over in case viewers somehow cannot understand that thousands and thousands of catastrophic cerebral blows might actually have consequences. In fairness to the filmmakers, however, the very story is marred by people who either do not believe this or are greedy and obsessed that they become apologists for nonsensical reasoning. It is shocking for its tragic truth.

This is illustrated with almost tragic precision in the second plot line, the blowback from Omalu’s research. Flatly, the NFL, based on blatant greed, views Omalu’s findings as an apocalyptic threat, likR an asteroid hurtling to Earth. And they respond with intimidation, professional ruin, and even legal action. Their zombified followers make life so awful for Omalu that it is implied that his wife miscarried.

But there is a terrifying parallel that can be found between Concussion, that ultimately highlights people’s blind allegiance to the NFL and Spotlight that highlights people’s blind allegiance to the Church. In fact, at one point Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks) comments that Imahlu is taking on an organization that “owns a day of the week.” He goes on to point out that the very same day “used to be owned by the Church”. While religion has produced dangerous sycophants for millennia, it would appear supplanted by a new idol.

concussion-movie-05227-1500x1000The film then offers a rather important, if messy and confused juxtaposition: football, while naturally a bloody, clearly destructive force in the lives of these players, is itself Art. Everyone in this film at some point reflects not only on the power of the NFL, but also on the beauty of the sport, it’s artistry, like watching a predator hunt its prey with horror and admiration. The duality of this message is loudly voiced but done so rather poorly, as each monologue feels inserted after the fact or otherwise out of place. That and it is delivered as pontification rather than dialogue.

This is also an inherent problem with the film that is most noticeable in the third plotline: the “Humanize Omalu slash Romance” portion of the film. This entire storyline is dreadful schmaltz. Essentially, wrapped up in his own life, he is prodded relentlessly to “get a girlfriend” and then, low and behold, one shows up on his very doorstep from Kenya via his church; thankfully Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is quite the looker and a former nurse (no one seems to know this although she speaks English).

This woman is essentially his confidant, ready to sit silently as he delivers his monologues about America and betrayal, but always ready to spit back words of encouragement or pensive questions that would give Shakespeare pause – albeit delivered awkwardly and suddenly without the use of conventional means of conversation. And then they become lovers for no apparent reason with a DOA proposal that just sours everything. Ghastly.

The acting in the film, however, is good throughout and makes the writing’s noticeable shortcomings bearable. Smith is powerful and deliberate in his portrayal of Omalu, even if he becomes annoying after a while (far more the fault of the script). Brooks is wonderful in that way only he can be – helping lackluster dialogue shine.

Alec Baldwin as Dr. Bailes adds some much needed balance as a reluctant ally and delivers s strong performance as well. Mbatha-Raw, while largely living in scenes I deeply wish had been omitted entirely, still delivers all that could be expected. She is a strong and interesting character and we can only hope she can reprise it in another film she deserves.

Overall, the film is more than simply watchable, despite some serious shortcomings. A messy, vulnerable script is improved by a talented cast and further enhanced by the very nature of a story that is of great interest. Worth watching over obscurity by a field goal. Sorry.

Rating: 6 – An expensive red wine and juicy steak

One Response to “Concussion: A Strong Team Doesn’t Quite Deliver on All Its Promise”

  1. Great review thanks. I’d give it a slightly higher rating for reasons set out in my review. Drop in for a read. I’ll be following your work.

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