This film left me in a pretty serious quandary: to wit, will I still watch my MSU Spartans play Alabama in their college football playoff game after Will Smith explained to me the dire consequences of participation in that sport? Based on the true story of Dr. Bennet Omalu, a former pathologist for Allegheny County, Concussion relates the story of how he first discovered the medical condition known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). Basically, CTE refers to the cumulative damage done to a football player’s brain after being repeatedly bruised during years of both practices and games. It reportedly causes severe depression, emotional instability, and violent mood swings. Since its discovery, CTE has been implicated in the suicides of several former NFL players including Junior Seau and Terry Long. As the film explains, there is no definitive way to diagnose CTE except through an autopsy, so it’s very hard to say how many veterans of the game may be already experiencing the symptoms of it. Another element that makes it so hard to diagnose is that a player may develop it without ever once having a severe concussion. It’s the sum total of all the blows to the head that causes the damage.
While all this information is interesting and important for both the players and their families, does it lend itself to making a good movie? Overall, I would respond with a yes, but not an overly-enthusiastic one. Will Smith’s performance is obviously what stands out here. He not only nails the Nigerian accent, with one or two small exceptions, but he does a great job of playing an educated immigrant trying to understand the role that football plays in American’s lives. There were several places throughout the two hour run time where I forgot I was watching Will Smith, which is something I normally can’t do with such a charismatic and bankable star (see Tom Cruise). I felt like I was watching a real person go through some pretty out-of-the-ordinary stuff. Of course, Dr. Omalu didn’t go through it alone.
The supporting cast is solid with Alec Baldwin as a former Steelers team doctor looking for redemption, Albert Brooks as the supportive boss we would all love to work for, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dr. Omalu’s wife. Although she does a nice job of playing the supporting spouse, there really isn’t a lot for her to do in terms of advancing the plot. In fact, I often found their domestic scenes distracting from the central conflict of the story: the NFL’s attempts to squash any research that reflects poorly on America’s game.
This is where the movie bobbles the ball a bit. Despite some innuendo, there really isn’t any concrete evidence provided that shadowy figures behind professional football did anything nefarious to hamper Dr. Omalu’s efforts at publicizing the dangers of CTE. While I believe that mega-corporations like the NFL are capable of such shenanigans, very little is presented here to support that conclusion. Without that critical element, we are left with a story with no antagonist; and, just like a 63 yard field goal attempt in a windy stadium, it’s a tough way to score points.
As to the MSU/Alabama game, I admit I’m still planning on watching it; however, knowing what I know now, I would have reconsidered my decision to let my own kids play football. Let ’em run cross country instead, I say. A pulled quad is a lot easier to fix than a broken brain.
Bottom line: see this movie for Will Smith’s performance, but wait to see it on cable.