Review: Concussion (AFI FEST 2015)
PLOT: Will Smith stars as Dr. Bennet Omalu, a brilliant forensic neuropathologist who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a serious condition that lead to the death of professional football players.
REVIEW: There is no question that football can be a tough game. The players take on challenging plays and put their bodies at risk on a daily basis. Of course, there is a whole lot of money that is made on the sport so you can bet that all involved will do whatever they can to win. In CONCUSSION, the revelation that major head trauma may be affecting players becomes a controversial issue. Based on a true story, the film begins with one such player who loses control of his life in every way possible. Mike Webster (David Morse) finds himself homeless, dealing with dementia and depression. He was the first pro football player to be diagnosed after his death with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Something that had not yet been discovered until after his tragic demise.
Will Smith is Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic neuropathologist who is in charge of Mike Webster’s autopsy. The doctor finds that there are serious questions regarding his untimely end. Unfortunately for him, when he expresses his concerns, it is not treated kindly by the NFL. The Nigerian born doctor decides to spend his own money to search for answers, as he discovers more and more ex-football players are committing suicide under questionable circumstances. Along the way, he and his fiancé Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) receive threatening calls, as well he finds his job and ability to stay in the US in question. During his struggles, he connects with an unlikely ally in the form of Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), a neurosurgeon working for the Pittsburg Steelers who begins to question the care the players are given.
As a dramatic thriller, CONCUSSION is good enough to provoke a reaction as we see men weakened by a state of impairment. Of course it is frustrating to see the higher ups refusal to believe that the constant head injuries would lead to serious problems. However, this man vs the system tale isn’t quite as powerful as it could have been. Writer/director Peter Landesman delivers a polished and accessible film that is slightly by-the-numbers, but it is not without its merits. This is certainly a fascinating story, and one that will have an impact on the viewers. Dr. Omalu sure made a few enemies as he was trying to get the world to see the dangers these men were facing.
One of the most important factors as to why this works at all is Will Smith. In one of his strongest performances, the actor has created an intriguing and compassionate character. Smith is even able to deliver a serviceable African accent - although it is the basic Hollywood version of one. However, the actor is able to let go of his trademark cocky charisma and give Omalu a personable and heartfelt take on the role. If you can’t believe in him as the doctor it wouldn’t have worked at all. Thankfully, I found him to be an anchor for this story, even when the film itself tends to falter.
Aside from Smith, the supporting cast is mostly quite effective. Guru Mbatha-Raw isn’t given much to do, but she has a nice chemistry with Smith. It would have been good to see her have just a couple of extra moments to shine. Alec Baldwin does a fine job as a doctor who is frightened to verbalize his concerns early on. Although you have to question whether he is supposed to have a slight accent? Either way it was inconsistent. One of the best performances not surprisingly was David Morse, the talented actor is nearly unrecognizable here as Webster. Also quite good is the always reliable Albert Brooks as Dr. Cyril Wecht, Dr. Omalu’s sympathetic boss.
CONCUSSION is a decent film about a serious subject matter. It is one that was - and possibly still is - controversial. With Will Smith doing a fine job in the leading role, and a solid cast backing him, it is a film that will play well enough with mainstream audiences. It’s just a shame that the script fails to be much more than a satisfactory sports drama. It is a heavy-handed feature with a critical eye on the NFL, one that seems to state the obvious again and again. It’s a shame, as this is a story that could have been told far better with a solid script. If you are a fan of Smith, this is certainly worth checking out for a bargain matinee, but it won’t stay with you for a very long time.
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