The concussion issue in football is something that continually rears its ugly head. As a fan of the NFL, I still cringe whenever I witness a massive hit or a player’s inability to get back up after colliding with another player of equal or greater weight. These are freight trains coming towards each other at full speed without any brakes. It’s been pounded into these athletes to take down the guy they’re assigned. It’s been ingrained in the public psyche to just go ahead with it because, you know, they don’t have to do it.
As long as there is football, the concussion storyline will always feel relevant. A shame then that this Christmas sees the release of Concussion, a movie whose writer-director, Peter Landesman, doesn’t appreciate the richness of the topic. Instead of focusing solely on this issue, Landesman succumbs to Oscar-bait storytelling as well as formulating a weak love story. Will Smith’s performance as Dr. Bennet Omalu, the forensic pathologist who uncovered the effects of football on the brain, is an admirable one … to a point. Too much of his dialogue seems prepped for segueways to Julianne Moore at the next Oscars: “And the Oscar goes to…” Concussion aims to be Brian’s Song and ends up The Waterboy.
Concussion begins in 2002, with its launching pad courtesy of the tragic case of Football Hall of Famer Mike Webster, played here by David Morse. Webster’s life has been ruined due to the heavy hits he sustained over what for many seemed to be a storybook career with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He is homeless and living in his car. He’s pulled out his teeth only to superglue them back in. He shocks himself to deal with the constant pain caused by years of physical trauma to the head.
Dr. Omalu performs autopsies while cool music pumps through his headphones.
Fascinating? No. Does that sentence seem out of place in this review? Yes. This is the story structure Landesman lands on (pun probably intended). Here we have a story that has been building for decades — concussions are slowly killing football players, legends and journeymen alike. While Omalu the man has done much in the way of sports both on and off the field, Omalu the character pales in comparison to the struggles of the Mike Websters, Dave Duersons, and Junior Seaus of the world. Landesman’s decision to interrupt these tragedies with a been-there-done-that love story is an insult. Omalu’s introduction of CTE (degenerative disease due to repetitive brain trauma) to the masses was crucial to athletics, but his personal life is detrimental to Concussion
For some reason, Concussion features a meet-cute and a dance-club date (“This body was made for dancing!”) in a movie where athletes shoot themselves in the chest to preserve their brains for study and the aforementioned self-induced shock treatments. Omalu’s love interest is Prema, played by Beyond the Lights’ Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who is wasted here. Her role in the movie is to encourage Omalu to continue his studies and get pregnant. Bechdel Test devotees will be screaming for the nearest exit.
Encouragement is needed after Omalu keeps getting resistance from others in his field as well as the NFL. Thankfully, he has his mentor Cyril (Albert Brooks, in a bald cap that appears to be gently placed upon his head without being glued down) to back him up. “You need to touch somebody alive.” “You need a girlfriend.” Let’s have a laugh! I hope Bennet falls in wuv soon! Don’t forget to fumble around with her suitcase upon meeting the love of your life, Benny! Oh, right. Concussions. An initially reluctant ally is then-Steelers team doctor Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), who gradually backs up Omalu’s studies in the years the movie covers. The timeline of the film is frustratingly unclear. At one point I realized time had passed solely because I knew the year that current NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell (Luke Wilson) was promoted to the position. To Landesman’s credit, rumors that the filmmaker bowed down to NFL threats prove unfounded here. The league comes across as obtuse, then downright negligent.
Unfortunately, Landesman’s big “villain” of the movie is not the NFL as a whole, but the late Dave Duerson, played with cartoonish aplomb by Lost’s Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. He is only in three scenes, but by God do they count. See Hall of Famer Dave Duerson ignore the pleas of a fellow retired NFL’er to help him (“Got a headache? See a doctor.”) See Dave Duerson try to intimidate Omalu before a meeting on CTE. See Dave Duerson apparently become possessed by the evil spirit of Concussion due to turning his back on his fellow athletes. See Dave Duerson become so crazed by this karma-like revenge spirit by taking his own life. It’s no wonder Duerson’s family is unhappy with his portrayal. Poorly written to say the least, insulting to say the most.
Concussion tries to “tell the truth!” but its filmmaker feels compelled to surround the truth with tales of a man whose life is just not that interesting. We’re left such platitudes as “If you don’t speak for the dead, then no one will,” “Need is not weak. Need is need,” and my personal favorite, “This is a really terrible brain.” Tension is always undercut by romance or scenes like the one in which Alec Baldwin downs his drink and sarcastically says, “Well that went well.”
For solid information on the effects concussions have had on players and the National Football League, head over to HBO and check out Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel — a show that’s featured great coverage on the topic for the past decade. Avoid Concussion, and concussions in general, at all costs.