Dr. Smith’s Diagnosis
Not unlike the recent (and superior) Spotlight, director Peter Landes- man’s fact-based Concussion dramatizes an ongoing controversy that was successfully suppressed by powerful forces – in this case the National Football League, with regard to the effects of head trauma suffered by players over the years.
It is, of course, an epidemic, one whose impact will continue to be felt as more casualties are counted. (The recent death of player-turned-announcer Frank Gifford was attributed in part to residual effects of his playing days.)
The man who stood up to the powers that be was Bennet Omalu (Will Smith), a Nigerian-born pathologist who put a name – chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) – to the condition, fully expecting that his findings would be hailed as a major medical breakthrough.
The good doctor – and he’s portrayed as being very, very good – had little knowledge about pro football and even less about the veil of secrecy propagated by the NFL. In doing good, Omalu finds himself a target what could be considered something of a conspiracy.
Concussion, adapted from a GQ article titled Brain Brain, is effective but often overstated. With no joke intended, it repeatedly, repetitiously pounds its message across, again and again and again – so much so that by the time the NFL actually addresses the situation at hand, it’s almost anti-climactic. This is one case where a little less might well have yielded a lot more.
As Omalu, the innately likable Smith is earnest, sincere, and confident without being cocky. Albert Brooks, enjoying his character-actor renaissance, is very appealing as Omalu’s boss, Cyril Wecht. Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Prema Mutiso, the woman who becomes Omalu’s wife. She’s personable enough, but her main function here seems to be to give Smith an on-screen love interest. That’s all fine and good (and box-office friendly), but it distracts from the main issue at hand.
Luke Wilson (as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell), Paul Reiser, Eddie Marsan, Arliss Howard, Mike O’Malley Stephen Moyer and Alec Baldwin also turn up – some very briefly – but don’t add nearly as much as Richard T. Jones (as Andre Waters), Matt Willig (as Justin Strzelczyk) and David Morse (as “Iron” Mike Webster), playing three of the NFL superstar casualties.
Watching Morse, playing one of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ most revered players, huffing ammonia to stay awake then tazing himself to sleep, gets the film’s message across more vividly than any dialogue could. There’s a steep price to be paid for those bone-crunching NFL highlights, enough to give any fan pause about cheering quite so loudly as they once did. !