Though it will rightfully garner some attention for Will Smith's impressive lead performance, Concussion is a largely flat procedural about the discovery of CTE, the disease caused by the sort of repeated head trauma regularly experienced by NFL players. It's clear writer/director Peter Landesman is passionate about the subject, but this poorly paced and meandering drama seems as if he set out to make a conspiracy thriller and forgot all about the "thriller" aspect. Not as revelatory as Michael Mann's The Insider, which pitted a different small-time David against a multi-billion dollar Goliath, Concussion covers a necessary and vital topic but never quite coalesces into the kind of Important Movie to which it aspires.
Writer/Director: Peter Landesman
Starring: Will Smith, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Albert Brooks
In 2002, Bennet Omalu (Will Smith), a doctor with a staggering number of medical degrees and an odd pre-autopsy habit of talking to cadavers as if they're still alive, performs an autopsy on former Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster (David Morse) and discovers some disturbing results. Webster, who spent the last years of his life confused, depressed, broke, and living in his truck, didn't lose his mind and die at age 50 as a fluke — after Omalu pays out of pocket for expensive tests on Webster's brain, he discovers the man had a disease caused by thousands of blows to the head. More former players die and Omalu discovers the same condition in them, eventually publishing the results in a medical journal and drawing the ire of the NFL, who are trying to keep this story quiet to better serve their own interests.
With the help of his wife Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), former Steelers doctor Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), and his boss Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), Omalu spends most of the movie attempting to convince various people that his findings are scientifically accurate and that the NFL is trying to discredit him. There are a handful of moments where the movie really feels like it's found its groove (especially in scenes of commentators cracking up about players getting "jacked up" as Smith intensely brews about the severity of their injuries), but sadly, those are incredibly few and far between. The film slows to a crawl during the early stages of Omalu and Prema's courtship, and it ultimately loses all momentum as it stumbles to its conclusion. The last act may depict exactly what happened in real life, but since this isn't a documentary, there had to be a different way to bring this story to a close that didn't completely sap all of its energy twenty minutes before the credits rolled.
The way the main character is depicted reminded me a bit of how Spielberg handled Tom Hanks' lawyer in Bridge of Spies: Omalu embodies the American Dream simply because he does the right thing in the face of extraordinary opposition. Since the effects of Omalu's real-life discovery are still making headlines today, Concussion should have a sense of immediacy and power to it, but the by-the-numbers script rarely catches us up in the whirlwind of discovery and revelation the story needs. I wanted the movie to make me really feel something, and while I definitely walked away with a sense of the NFL as a villain, a film like this should inspire people to get up in arms about this topic. Unfortunately, Concussion's sluggish pacing might result in more shoulder shrugs than meaningful attempts to protect NFL players.