Film Review: Concussion

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Concussion Plot Summary

Plot: Based on a true story, after doing the autopsy of former Pittsburgh Steelers great Mike Webster (David Morse), Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) discovers a condition in the brain that is a direct result of playing football. As Dr. Omalu’s findings become more concrete, he fights to bring his research to the NFL.

If you were worried this film was going to be easy on the NFL, I can assure you that is not the case. This is a scathing look at the National Football League and their reaction to the new findings on concussions from a few years ago, also known as CTE. Now just as I do for every movie that is based on a true story that people get riled up about, I must heed this warning – this is a movie. You should not take this as gospel. If you want real facts, go read a medical journal on the subject. My job is not to evaluate how factual this is. My job is to evaluate this as a movie. Now with that out of the way, I can say this is a heavily flawed film, but where it counts, Concussion delivers.

As I said before, this movie does not hold back. Every time it focuses on the CTE research and the affect it has on previous NFL players, the film is gut-wrenching. You see in detail what is happening to the brain. You get precise dialogue about how these players killed themselves. We’ll get to Will Smith later, but the more effective performances actually come from the actors who portray real life former players, now deceased. David Morse in particular as Mike Webster, the spark plug for all this, was really unsettling to watch. It’s a small part, but he should get Oscar consideration for this. The filmmakers make it clear early on with Morse’s role that they are not holding back. Matthew Willig, Richard T. Jones and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as other former players are also heartbreakingly effective.

It’s Will Smith who drives the film though as Dr. Bennet Omalu. Even though the first ten minutes are poorly directed, we get a good sense of Omalu’s character from the first couple scenes. Smith delivers in spades, there’s not much else to say. At times he’s driven and determined, but also nervous and vulnerable about the buttons he’s pushing. Smith also does a great job of bringing a lot of humanity to the character, whether he’s talking to the dead patients he’s about to cut open, his admiration for America or even when trying to bond with Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), his future wife.

That’s where the movie makes its biggest missteps. Mbatha-Raw’s performance is fine, but their relationship always brings the film to a screeching halt. There’s way too much time spent on Omalu’s personal life. If the movie had stayed focused on the primary story more, this could have been great. At one point we get a fantastic scene where Omalu is presenting his findings to a massively important doctor (Eddie Marsan), but then we cut to a very generic sequence between him and Prema.  The director (Peter Landesman) has a knack for losing momentum throughout the whole movie.

Aside from Smith, we also get Albert Brooks (always a treat), but it’s Alec Baldwin with a key role as former Pittsburgh Steelers team doctor, Dr. Julian Bailes. I appreciated his role as a man who wanted to help Omalu, but who still recognizes the beauty of football. This is crucial, because if we aren’t reminded of how much people crave football, then we’ll find it harder to believe how much of a struggle it was for Omalu to be heard.

That brings us to the NFL, which as I mentioned before is not exactly portrayed in the best light. They make these guys look like super villains to the point where I expected the Imperial March to be played.  While more than likely exaggerated, the film does a good job of giving us cocky antagonists who’s cover up tactics are slimy and dirty to the core. I’ve noticed a lot of people complain about Luke Wilson being cast as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, which I don’t understand. A goofy looking guy with a permanent arrogant look on his face? Sounds like good casting to me.

The only other movie Peter Landesman has directed was Parkland in 2013, and this definitely could have benefited from a more seasoned guy. If they edited down the subplots, this could have been one of the best movies of the year. If the movie’s goal was to make us think more about the risks NFL players go through to play this game, they’ve succeeded. It’s not perfect, but the performances are top notch, and it will certainly leave an impact on how you view your next NFL game.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10 (Very Good)

Daniel Cohen is the hard-boiled Film Editor for the Pop Break. Besides reviews, Daniel writes box office predictions, Gotham reviews and Oscar coverage. He can also be found on the Breakcast. If Daniel was sprayed by Scarecrow's fear toxin, it would be watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen on a non-stop loop.