It’s so rare for the NFL to put their stamp of approval on anything that when they do it’s a cause for concern, especially when the film is dealing with traumatic brain injury suffered by its players. The issue is one the NFL resisted for a long time, denying there was a problem even as reports streamed in that some were suffering long-term effects from repeated blows to the head on the gridiron. So when reports surfaced that “Concussion”, Peter Landesman’s film on the subject, may have been neutered to maintain a happy relationship between the NFL and Sony Pictures, the expectation was the film would be totally toothless. Draft Day minus the humor.
Well, it’s not. “Concussion” takes the NFL to task and retains all of the startling revelations that rocked the biggest and most lucrative sport in the world. That it manages to be a stirring story of one outsider’s battle against a corporate juggernaut is the film’s greatest achievement, though, because the goal clearly is to instruct and inform as well as entertain. The “Erin Brockovich” template is in full effect here, based on the revealing 2009 GQ article “Game Brain” about Dr. Bennett Omalu (Will Smith), a straight-laced forensic pathologist who discovered in 2002 that seemingly healthy NFL players were dying way too young. And not just that, but some, like in the case of Pittsburgh Steelers great, Mike Webster (played convincingly by David Morse), had defects in their brains that were driving them to commit suicide.
Of course, nobody wants to hear that there’s a connection that leads back to the NFL, but what’s surprising is that Omalu’s detractors come from all sides. Of Nigerian descent, Omalu is seen as an outsider among outsiders. He doesn’t watch football or even understand the sport, and his dispassionate look at the evidence drives the fiery followers of the sport to rip him in the press. Coining the term Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (or CTE), Omalu is forced to look for help where he can find it, joining with his mentor Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks, providing a dose of comic relief),and fellow doctors Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin) and Ron Hamilton (Stephen Moyer) in what looks like an impossible fight. The goal is to bring awareness to the problem, but beyond that they need the NFL to admit the crisis even exists.
“You’re going to war with a corporation that owns a day of the week. The same one the church used to own”, says Wecht at one point. But Omalu comes to the realization that “God did not intend for us to play football.” Good luck telling millions of rabid fans that; or the wealthy players who have only ever known football all of their lives.
At first it seems the film is going to be an offbeat medical procedural in the vein of “House”. Omalu is a man with a special kind of devotion to his work, speaking to the dead and claiming it helps him find the cause of their death. With his headphones on and his natural aversion to social graces (mainly due to cultural differences), Omalu isn’t someone the establishment even wants to support. As an immigrant he has a view of the American Dream that others simply don’t have. He thinks revealing the damage football has caused is what a good American should do, and is surprised when it actually makes him public enemy #1. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell (Luke Wilson, badly miscast), who doesn’t come off so well in this film at all, publicly denounces Omalu and all of his findings. So does former Chicago Bears great, Dave Duerson (Adewale Akkinuoye-Agbage), until the disease hits him on a personal level.
His desire to prove himself a worthy American citizen is perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Omalu’s story. Landesman’s screenplay occasionally spends too much time on his personal life where he forges a romantic relationship with Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, solid but underused), a fellow Nigerian who has more of an appreciation for the sport than he does. Some thriller elements emerge, like when Omalu and Prema start getting scary phone calls, but they aren’t as convincing as his scientific quest for the truth.
In his best role since Ali, Will Smith sports a solid Nigerian accent and presents Omalu as a man of deep faith and conviction. This has turned out to be a Hell of a comeback year for Smith (along with the underrated “Focus”); putting himself back on the map as one of today’s top leading men. He just needs the right material, and “Concussion” provides that for him. We always want to see him as the champion for what’s right, and Smith is more comfortable in that kind of role. In a David & Goliath story such as this, Smith is the kind of guy audiences want to see in their corner. “Concussion” isn’t perfect, but it’s well-acted and accomplishes the one thing it really needed to which is dare to defy the might of the NFL.