Starring Will Smith, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Albert Brooks, David Morse, Luke Wilson
Peter Landesman’s previous film Parkland was quickly snuffed and laughed out of the awards race back in 2013. The writer/director returns with a sophomore project produced by Ridley Scott and Will Smith in the lead. Concussion won’t be a big awards season but it explores real growth from Landesman. Concussion lives or dies on how well the audience buys Smith’s African accent and portrayal of the doctor who discovered “Chronic traumatic encephalopathy” or CTE. Wanting desperately to be like hard hitting investigative films like The Insider or Michael Clayton, it goes soft when focusing on the NFL knowledge and responsibility, always keeping the mainstream audience in its periphery.
When Mike Webster (Morse) of the Pittsburgh Steelers killed himself in 2002, Dr. Bennet Omalu (Smith) was chosen for the autopsy. With his 8 advanced degrees, the doctor cannot determine why an otherwise healthy 50 year old male would exhibit such erratic behavior before his death. Dr. Omalu came to the conclusion that the immense head trauma Webster sustained throughout his lifetime playing football killed him. Following the deaths of more players, he comes to the same conclusion, publishing a revolutionary new finding in a medical journal and then the New York Times, sending shockwaves through the NFL. Omalu becomes a target from the world’s largest sports league because his findings threaten their bottom line.
Smith disappears into this role within the first few minutes and his star status is forgotten as the audience becomes interested in this story.
“I think more about how people died than how they live,” Omalu says as he defends his unusual practices, which include talking to the corpse. This is Smith’s best performance since everyone took him seriously playing Ali which landed him his first Oscar nomination. Every few years, Smith turns away from macho action films and sci-fi comedies to remind us of his talent, it’s earned him a Golden Globe nomination this year. He disappears into this role within the first few minutes and his star status is forgotten as the audience becomes interested in this story. Smith is aided but terrific supporting performances, especially Albert Brooks (Drive, A Most Violent Year) who nearly steals the show with his clever one offs. Morse (The Green Mile, Contact) is frighteningly memorable in grotesque makeup and fake teeth.
The rousing and colorful introduction of our lead character on a witness stand for an unrelated case familiarizes the audience with the intelligence of Dr. Omalu. Landesman is also very aware of the PG-13 goal as the camera always spares the viewers stomach during the autopsies. By the time the script sucks the audience in, Omalu can present his true findings that “God did not intend us to play football,” and the film makes a good argument for it. Concussion isn’t a religious film, but Omalu is one of the cleanest and most honest characters we have seen on screen the entire year. Concussion’s biggest fault is the scenarios it embellishes to create drama or suspense where there isn’t any. The information the film presents is vast but never in a way that feels burdensome for the viewer and that’s thanks to Smith’s charismatic performance.
Smith and Brooks turn an information film into a dramatic one.