Friday, December 25, 2015
CONCUSSION (Peter Landesman, 2015)
Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County Coroner’s Office seems like an unlikely place for a challenger to the National Football League to emerge, yet that’s where Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) makes an important discovery in CONCUSSION. The Nigerian immigrant and absurdly well-educated neuropathologist has no particular interest in or objection to the American sport until he performs an autopsy on former Pittsburgh Steelers great Mike Webster (David Morse). Omalu believes that repeated blows to the head are responsible for causing the early dementia Webster experienced. He publishes his findings on chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, and naϊvely believes the NFL will be grateful to learn about risks to their players’ health.
Fair or not, CONCUSSION does not compare favorably to SPOTLIGHT, another recent process film about exposing a systemic problem that leaders have hidden or ignored. CONCUSSION well-assembled but indistinct scenes of research in the first half show Omalu working at personal and financial cost to find out why professional football players are exhibiting such unusual psychological distress that result in premature deaths. He pursues the answer to a question not being asked and arrives at a conclusion that could threaten a hugely profitable corporation. When it sticks to the work Omalu does in the morgue and at his kitchen table, CONCUSSION grants a glimpse into the thankless efforts that go into producing such a study.
After Omalu and colleagues have published, CONCUSSION falls prey to the trap of needing to make the NFL into the proverbial moustache-twirling fat cat villains with pervasive menacing influence like one of James Bond’s SPECTRE foes. There are intimations that the league may have a hand in the FBI leveling trumped up charges at Omalu’s boss Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks) to remove him from office and coming after the good doctor too. CONCUSSION also suggests the possibility of he and his girlfriend-turned wife Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) being followed. Such finger-pointing and dramatic turns pull CONCUSSION into thriller territory that is at odds with the research and policy matters at hand.
CONCUSSION succeeds in showing the toll football took on some gridiron heroes and their families, but ultimately the story belongs to Omalu. Smith portrays him as a gentle and generous man, but the film and performance struggle to develop him beyond being an honorable do-gooder. Omalu’s romance with Prema generates some nice moments, especially when he talks about being an outsider, yet these scenes stray from the film’s focus.