“It’s painful playing football, obviously,” states Mike Webster (David Morse). It’s a somber remark made by a retired football star who would soon abandon his family, become homeless, and eventually kill himself at the age of 50. As Webster’s mental stability rapidly deteriorates, a former Steelers team doctor and good friend Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin) is baffled by brain scans that show complete normalcy. His despair over the situation worsens as additional ex-NFL players meet similar, untimely demises brought about by suicidal tendencies and fits of rage.
In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 2002, neuropathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) is tasked with performing the autopsy on Mike Webster. The doctor is a bit peculiar, regularly talking to the cadavers in the Allegheny County Coroner’s lab as he prepares to cut them up in the cleanest, most respectful manner possible, hoping that their spirits will somehow assist him in discovering the hidden reasons behind their deaths. To some degree it must work, because Omalu is able to formulate that Webster has torn out all of his teeth and glued them back in – before ever touching the body. After paying for special tests on Webster’s brain tissue, beyond what his duties entail, Bennet discovers that a specific, recurring disease may link the cases of hysterical, Alzheimer-like, aging football players – and that the culprit is the game itself.
Since the film is essentially just a message piece to inform viewers (especially those lacking in common sense) that billion-dollar-businesses are corrupt and that excessive concussions can cause serious damage, it runs out of steam about halfway through its hefty two-hour runtime. To pad the picture and to incorporate expected elements of familial drama and character development, Omalu gains a houseguest – almost immediately after boss Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks) suggests that he interact with living human women for a change. Prema Mutiso (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a conveniently attractive, single, seemingly age-appropriate, romantic interest takes up residence at Omalu’s home, setting the state for an obligatory love story (with an obligatory nightclub flirtation scene), which rears its head every time the analyzation of scientific findings grows too tiresome.
Through pounding music, montage sequences, and quick edits, “Concussion” occasionally conducts itself like a psychological thriller – but there are no thrills to be found here. The research and studies are also presented like a great mystery, but there’s really no mystery at hand either. The fact that certain brain damage can only be proven through an autopsy is curious, but hardly cause for theatrical endeavors.
And what is less amusing is the manner in which the film hopes to make the NFL – and, by extension, every fan of the game – a villain for perpetuating the deadly act of contact sports; surely no one forced professional football players into participating in such a barbaric ritual, with little more than fame and adoration and millions of dollars in compensation. It’s not like football is equivalent to gladiatorial fights to the death between slaves. Finding sympathy for any side of this entertainment entity (is it any different than boxing or rugby or hockey when it comes to its level of violence?) is a major struggle, chiefly when the only effective resolution is to cease the sport of football altogether – or to pay ungodly sums of money to players who feign shock at the potential for repetitive blows to the head to have negative long-term consequences. After all, does anyone stop mountain climbing or skydiving or base jumping (or any extreme or even non-extreme sport) after they’ve been warned of the dangers? Isn’t the brutality part of the fun?