“Concussion” (2015) - Fourteen years ago, I coached youth football and remember telling a large group of 11 and 12 year-olds, “Football is not a contact sport. It is a collision sport.”
I also stressed to them, “You don’t want to make contact with your opponent. You want to blow them up on the football field.”
In director Peter Landesman’s “Concussion”, he tells Dr. Bennet Omalu’s (Will Smith) true story, and how he blew up the safety perceptions of football, and more specifically, in the NFL. As early as the opening scene, Landesman does an excellent job of establishing setting, tone and characters, and the film’s players (on and off the football field) are placed within a stressful environment in the city of Pittsburgh, a football epicenter of sorts. With thousands of fans in the stands wearing black and gold and cheering their Sunday heroes, we immediately understand the Pittsburgh Steelers are hugely woven into the fabric of the city. Conversely, in subdued conference rooms, Landesman features some key one-on-one and two-on-one conversations about the importance of football to the average fan, and just about “everyone in America” is at least an average fan.
Enter Dr. Omalu, a highly-educated Nigerian-born doctor with zero interest in football but serves a dedicated obligation to his patients. Dead ones. He is a Pittsburgh pathologist and asked to determine the cause of death of Mike Webster, a Football Hall of Fame center for the Steelers for 15 years. The good doctor finds something astonishing (and equally frightening) and concludes that Mr. Webster suffered from 70,000 blows to the head over his football career, and it resulted in soul-crushing brain damage. Dr. Omalu’s conclusions are that football killed Webster and God did not intend for human beings to play this sport.
The film quickly shifts to a David and Goliath story with the doctor playing the former and the highly-established NFL acting as the latter. Ironically, Omalu casts a stone at Goliath trying to call attention to head injuries, not cause one. Through corporate influence and power, the NFL retaliates by attempting to discredit Omalu’s findings. With billions of dollars in annual revenue streaming in from fans and corporate customers, alike, this man – who does not even know the game – threatens its very existence. Through dry boardroom discussions and the use of an occasional blue filter, the film purposely and successfully feels as cold and antiseptic as a morgue’s operating table, because irreversible brain damage is deadly-serious business. Specific icy accounts - such as one player pulling out his own teeth and gluing them back into his gum line - become effective fodder for the audience.
We do receive some feel-good relief with Omalu’s personal life and his budding relationship with Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), although they suffer through some rocky times due to his fight with the NFL. Those troubles effectively add to our sympathy for this perceived “outsider”. Alec Baldwin and Albert Brooks are solid in supporting roles as Omalu’s allies, but there is little depth with the main antagonists within the NFL. The individual football proponents seem like faceless, thoughtless suits, but in conglomeration, act as one collective corporate menace. “Concussion” does not work as a traditional thriller, because the gears of this struggle move so slowly, but it is effective as a thought-provoking discovery and a biopic on Dr. Omalu himself. Smith carries a terrific performance and balances his character’s sharp intellect with equally visible compassion and persistence. Led by Smith’s work, “Concussion” leaves the viewer – especially a football fan, player or coach - to substantially question his or her beliefs about a beloved sport. After watching this movie, one might conclude that “blowing up your opponent” does not seem like such a smart idea after all. (3/4 stars)