“Concussion,” releasing to theaters on Dec. 25, boldly comes at a time when football fans are gearing up for the final weeks of the game they love so dearly, and making projections on which two teams will square off in the biggest and most-watched event of the year: the Super Bowl. But the film’s main focus is on something that most fans of the game have struggled to discuss, and that is the health of players who play the game – and what can happen to them as a result of some of those big hits that are highlighted each week.
Football is a fun sport to watch, but it’s also a dangerous one to those who play. Many players are left permanently damaged in some way after spending years engaging in an active and aggressive sport. Enter Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith), a pathologist and Nigerian immigrant in the Pittsburgh, Penn. area who has no knowledge of the game, but discovers that the sudden surge of deaths in former players is due to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). And the reason so many players have been developing this disease is because of the huge hits and the concussions they have received while playing the game.
His findings are shocking, and to the NFL, they’re not welcome. They immediately refute his claims without giving it a look, and the fans send him death threats. But Bennet isn’t going to stop until the truth becomes known and accepted.
When Smith first appears onscreen as Bennet, it’s not exactly the most welcome entry. His look is identical to that of just about every other film he has done, so he doesn’t completely disappear into the role. And when we first hear his accent, it comes across as odd, since it just seems like Smith is just talking with a Nigerian accent. But as the movie progresses, the viewer completely forgets that he even has one. In the end, Smith does turn in a good performance, but not exactly one that is awards-worthy.
There are some supporting actors in “Concussion” who give more moving performances, don’t have as much screen time as Smith, and also aren’t getting as much attention, but need to be. The most powerful moments in “Concussion” come from when we see how CTE affected the players who took their own lives because of the disease.
David Morse is fantastic as Mike Webster, or “Iron Mike” as Steelers fans knew him. His case is the first in which Bennet discovers the link between concussions and a former athlete’s deteriorating mental state. The minute we see Morse, as Mike’s condition worsens and he unfortunately takes his own life, it’s like a punch to the gut. Morse grabs the viewer’s attention and leaves us shaken.
The same can be said for Matthew Willig, a former pro football player who spent his time with numerous teams including the San Francisco 49ers, Green Bay Packers, and St. Louis Rams. In “Concussion,” Willig plays Justin Strzelczyk, another Steelers athlete who battled depression due to CTE. We first see him as he tries to calm a disoriented Mike Webster, and then later as he faces the demons himself. It’s gripping to watch Willig in this performance.
The only serious flaw in the casting is the decision to have Luke Wilson play current NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Wilson isn’t a bad actor, but his performance here is rather stale. And, like the issue with Smith’s performance, he doesn’t completely disappear into the role. So, we don’t really see Wilson playing Goodell; we see Wilson playing a character, and that character is supposedly the NFL Commissioner. It’s tough to buy from the get-go.
“Concussion” doesn’t quite deliver the impact one thinks it should. The issue itself is an important one, but the movie only sells its importance in small doses. As the viewer is trying to understand everything, the narrative goes down another path that is less interesting and not quite necessary, and then comes back to the original focus.
The overall film is a bit jumbled, but Smith is good to watch, as are Albert Brooks, Alec Baldwin, and several other cast members. If the film had a more focused approach, and went deeper into the issue, it could have been something special. As is, it’s good, but it’s not great.