Concussion movie review

Beyond serving as an infomercial as to why parents shouldn’t let their kids get into football and wasting one of Will Smith’s best recent performances, the point of Concussion is very unclear.

What could have been a strong, thought-provoking look at the long-term effects of one of the more physically demanding sports and the mindset of those who play it is instead turned into a biased bore.

I question the approach as director/screenwriter Peter Landesman wants the audience to choose sides without a convincing argument from either perspective. Considering football is the new national pastime, it’s hard to see Landesman making many converts with his demonizing portrayal of the NFL.  

L-r, Mike O'Malley, Albert Brooks and Will Smith star in Columbia Pictures' "Concussion."
L-r, Mike O’Malley, Albert Brooks and Will Smith star in Columbia Pictures’ “Concussion.”

Landesman‘s fervor to portray the NFL as this shadowy, clandestine organization “above acts of God” causes him to lose focus on the more important aspects of his film — the people. Concussion just isn’t personal enough to connect.

Following the shocking death of a beloved Pittsburgh Steelers player, forensic neuropathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu (Smith) discovers a life shortening link caused by the significant head trauma NFL players experience. Omalu calls his findings Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a progressively degenerative disease found in people with repetitive brain trauma.

But unaware of the potential impact his findings have on the national pastime, Omalu is unprepared for the anguish and harassment that follows him and his supporters.

Albert Brooks, sporting a bad makeup job, plays Omalu’s mentor and advocate Dr. Cyril Wecht while Alec Baldwin delivers a solid performance as Julian Bailes, a former NFL team doctor, who seeks atonement for buying in to the NFL system.

Omalu and the other characters are painted in broad strokes that offer little insight into the people who risked their careers and futures to make the NFL fess up to the potential long-term repercussions of the sport. If anything, Landesman downplays Omalu and his peers’ findings to make the film just another little man vs. big corporation story when it’s so much more significant.

The biggest travesty is Landesman completely wastes one of Smith’s best performances. Smith deserves to be on the short list for consideration to be nominated for this third Best Actor Oscar. Adding to his degree of difficulty, Smith gets the Nigerian accent down without it being distracting and he gives Omalu a sense of desperate earnestness that drives the film. With a better script, this could have been an awards showcase for him, but it’s a waste of Smith and a talented cast.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Will Smith star in Columbia Pictures' "Concussion."
Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Will Smith star in Columbia Pictures’ “Concussion.”

As Prema Mutiso (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Beyond the Lights [Blu-ray]) is introduced and subsequently relegated to an “as-needed” status, it’s apparent Landesman has little interest in developing Omalu’s courtship with his future wife. Mbatha Raw, superb even in this underdeveloped role, has strong chemistry with Smith resulting in the film’s best moments simply them interacting.

Still, Prema fares better than some characters like Stephen Moyer’s Dr. Ron Hamilton, Hill Harper as Christopher Jones or Paul Reiser’s Dr. Elliot Pellman, whose exact roles are never clearly defined. Landesman almost seems to assume the viewer is already familiar with all the players in this saga making for a jarring, frequently confusing experience. Luke Wilson is noticeably miscast as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, the one public NFL face the casting agents needed to get right.

L-r, Will Smith, Alec Baldwin and Arliss Howard star in Columbia Pictures' "Concussion."
L-r, Will Smith, Alec Baldwin and Arliss Howard star in Columbia Pictures’ “Concussion.”

Landesman relies on his go-to trick of players’ breaking down and eventually succumbing to CTE a little too often. The film desperately needed a rational voice from the NFL or a former player to present a reasonable conflicting point of view. Instead, all the players are painted as ticking time bombs waiting for their violent eruption and the NFL willingly enabling it with its lack of transparency and accountability.

At two hours, the film rarely feels like it’s making any headway and there’s a real sense that Landesman is just spinning his wheels. The film’s outcome, as even casual football fans are aware, is equally underwhelming without that satisfying sense of accomplishment that the little guy won for a change.

Will Smith stars in Columbia Pictures' "Concussion."
Will Smith stars in Columbia Pictures’ “Concussion.”

Concussion could have been that cinematic rallying call to demand more of the NFL. By vilifying the league so strongly instead of saluting the man who brought attention to this endemic, the film fails to provoke the discussion its filmmaker so desperately intended.

Rating: 5 out of 10

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  • Hey Jeffrey.

    Just saw it as it opened only Wednesday in France and I have to admit that I liked it a lot even though I find your arguments really interesting.

    As a football fan (long live the Dolphins) and player, I found it really compelling and some sequences frightened me but I don’t think that villifying the league was a bad choice. Since I chosed to follow NFL closely, I saw a lot of subjects mistreated by this league (Ray Rice for exemple) and even IRL it looks like a mafia. But the scene where Baldwin explains why this sport is beautiful (Shakespearean in his words) is the most interesting idea in the film, the apparent enemy being also a thing of grace. And the cast of Luke Wilson as Roger Goodell was IMO a great choice. To us French, Goodell is the epitome of the American Man and Wilson conveys this look as well.

    I really think it will spark conversation with my teammates as intended by Landesman.

    Keep up the good work, Jeffrey!

  • Ugh, what a bummer! I didn’t really have an interest in the film, but it’s hard not to root for Will Smith and I was hoping this would be a big one for him. Honestly, I hadn’t even heard about it, and the fact that the studio chose to release it right around Star Wars makes me feel like they had little faith in it. sigh maybe next time, Will!

  • He’s really good in it, which is the worst part. The script does him few favors. At least his performance can restore confidence his best roles were beyond him.

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  • Jeffrey Lyles

    Hey Camille

    I always enjoy a nice debate and I’m always glad to hear people enjoyed something I didn’t. Helps keep things interesting here. I totally agree about Ray Rice and how the league handles things. The film didn’t do a strong enough job showing willful neglect and it didn’t help that every player they focused on developed issues.

    Really appreciate you commenting and hope to hear from you again soon!