Movie Review: “Concussion”

Starring
Will Smith, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Albert Brooks, Alec Baldwin, Luke Wilson, Stephen Moyer, David Morse
Director
Peter Landesman

“Concussion” is a film without an audience. Football fans won’t see this movie, because they don’t want to embrace the fact that the NFL lied to them for years about the dangers associated with playing football, and threw thousands of its former players under the bus in order to protect the brand, because money. Who does that leave, then? Medical procedural fans? Well, maybe, because “Concussion” plays more like a TV movie than a theatrical release. The worst thing about it is that the subject of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) deserves a larger audience than it currently has, and yet the movie’s villain, unlike the like-minded “The Insider,” which targeted the tobacco industry, is the NFL. People like the NFL, which means they’re far less likely to see a movie that tells them that their favorite thing is wicked.

It is 2005, and Nigeria-born Dr. Bennet Olamu (Will Smith) works for the coroner’s office at Pittsburgh’s Allegheny County Hospital. He has an odd relationship with his patients, in that he speaks to them while he’s determining their cause of death. One day, he examines the body of local Steelers legend Mike Webster (David Morse), who’s recently committed suicide, and sees an unusual amount of protein in his brain. Unluckily for him, as it were, Bennet examines a few more football players who exhibited erratic behavior shortly before their premature deaths, and concludes that they are suffering from brain trauma that arose as a result of repeated blows to the head. Bennet thinks that he is doing the NFL a favor by giving them this information. He is mistaken.

The best thing about this movie is something that is impossible to prove, and that is the suggestion that former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliague resigned because he knew that damage from concussions was a very real thing, and that his feet were about to be put to the fire for what was done on his watch, so he stepped down and put human jellyfish Roger Goodell (jellyfish need very little oxygen for brain function, you see) in his place. Goodell is played by Luke Wilson, which seems like an “Idiocracy” in-joke in retrospect.

The film is well-acted, mostly. Smith is fine as the uber-smart, level-headed Bennet, though his accent work is not as impressive as he probably thinks it is. (Anyone can do that accent. Seriously.) The best work comes from the supporting roles, or at least the male roles. Albert Brooks is terrific as Cyril Wecht, the Allegheny County Coroner who encourages Bennet to keep digging, ultimately to his detriment. Alec Baldwin does a solid job as Dr. Julian Bailes, a former Steelers team doctor who has had enough with the cover-up. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, on the other hand, gets nothing to work with as Bennet’s wife Prema. Their meet-cute is the most joyless marriage proposal you will ever see, and she plays the victim from there on.

The main culprits in “Concussion” are the script (stodgy and predictable), the direction (also stodgy and predictable), and frankly, time. Aaron Sorkin may have made this subject interesting with a spiffier script, but even then, it’s possible that the audience tunes out because time has yet to provide proper perspective. The story of the 1919 Chicago “Black” Sox, who threw the World Series for money, didn’t become a book until 1963, and it didn’t become a film until 1988, nearly 70 years later. Granted, the Black Sox hurt no one but themselves, and the CTE issue is hurting people now, but for many, this concussion thing is still too soon, their favorite player’s health be damned. May history see it in a more favorable light.

  

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