CONCUSSION (UK | Australia | USA/12A/123mins)
Directed by Peter Landesman. Starring Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, David Morse, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Albert Brooks, Eddie Marsan, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje.
THE PLOT: When former professional NFL player Mike Webster (David Morse) dies of an apparent heart attack, pathologist Bennett Omalu (Will Smith) pays for tests to be done on Webster’s brain at his own expense. After his findings reveal that constant head injuries left Webster – and potentially hundreds of other NFL players – with a degenerative brain condition, Omalu publishes his work in a medical journal, inadvertently drawing the anger of the NFL.
THE VERDICT: It probably doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has watched more than a few moments of American Football that this violent contact sport can have disastrous effects on players, but just how much suffering former players had to go through before this condition was realised – and even then, only after their deaths – has not quite been shown before. That said, this is not the story of the players, it is the story of a Nigerian immigrant to America, a highly qualified doctor who chose to work as a pathologist, and the struggle he went through to have his work acknowledged, and to protect players.
Will Smith is in the lead here as doctor Bennett Omalu, and although his Nigerian accent jars on first hearing it, Smith actually has a pretty firm grasp of the gentle African way of speaking. Smith also portrayed Omalu as a gentle and noble man, which makes the character watchable, and the audience drawn into this underdog tale. Smith is backed up by Eddie Marsan, Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Morse, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje and Albert Brooks on wonderful, witty form. The cast are good with what they are given, but this is Smith’s film.
Writer / Director Peter Landesman has written another solid examination of true events, after Parkland and Kill the Messenger, and the screenplay for the film is solid in terms of simple and engaging dialogue. When the film falls down, however, is in getting caught up in the subplots of the film. Examining the life that Mike Webster was living before he died is worthwhile for the sake of the film, but there is a love story thrown in, seemingly, for the sake of giving Will Smith someone to give a monologue to and to receive an inspirational speech from, and the first 30 minutes or so of the film feel sluggish and drawn out in establishing the rest of the story.
As director, Landesman struggles with the pace of the first and final acts of the film. Establishing the story feels as though it takes a lot of work, and the final act of the film simply runs out of energy and peters out. The performances are strong enough, but the actors are simply not given a chance to do much other than carry the story.
In all, ‘Concussion’ is an interesting enough tale, but since a lot of the events and findings mentioned in the film are still being investigated, there is no truly satisfactory ending to be had in the film. Smith and his supporting cast do fine with what they are given, but still only act as conduits to the story, so even though there is enough to engage with here, the film feels unfinished and unsatisfying.
Review by Brogen Hayes

  • filmbuff2011

    If Will Smith had been nominated for an Oscar for his performance in Concussion, would the #OscarsSoWhite campaign have gained so much traction? Maybe not, but his wife has a point. Whatever the politics of the situation, Smith gives a sterling performance in what surely must have made the shortlist of Best Actor performances this year.

    Based on a true story, here he plays Dr Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian immigrant who works as a pathologist in Pittsburgh. A quirky but highly focused doctor, who likes to talk to his dead patients while performing autopsies, he is interested in studying the science of death – the hows and whys that cause people to stop breathing and their hearts to stop beating. His boss Cyril (Albert Brooks) thinks he should engage with living human beings more, so he introduces him to Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). She stays with him initially as a lodger but then a tentative romance forms. While working on the autopsy of once-great but now-disgraced 50-year-old former American football player Mike Webster (David Morse), Bennet makes a startling discovery. By analysing his brain, Bennet discovers that repeated concussions over the course of Mike’s career on the field caused his brain to literally strangle itself and drive him mad, ultimately to his death at too young an age. More cases start to appear and Bennet draws a connection between them all. He works with Mike’s friend and fellow doctor Julian (Alec Baldwin) to present his shocking evidence to the medical community and the NFL (National Football League). But the fight for recognition against a hostile NFL will take its toll on Omalu…

    Based on a GQ article and directed by Peter Landesman, Concussion is a probing and insightful look into the politics of American football and the attempt by one man to change the way it works and treats its players. Bennet has little understanding of how important American football is to Americans. Even Cyril explains it to him, saying that the NFL owns a day of the week – the same day that the Church used to own. This isn’t a film about American football though. Replace American football with rugby and you only have to realise that the same problems exist here too – e.g. Brian O’Driscoll and his repeated concussions on the field. Instead, Concussion focuses tightly on one highly determined outsider’s attempt to change things for the better. Bennet is not acting out of misunderstanding or distrust, but out of compassion for the dead or the ones who are already dying while their brains seize up.

    Several references are made throughout the film to the Big Tobacco cases, where one individual blew the whistle on a giant corporation that thinks it can’t be hurt by one man and his supposedly crackpot theories. This means that Landesman is aiming for something like Michael Mann’s The Insider. Bennet may be an outsider, but his theories are sound and require immediate attention. Landesman is partially successful on getting that Insider-type paranoia about faceless corporations burying the truth to protect their own interests. He makes some good points and Smith gives an understated but commanding performance – compassionate, determined and full of self-belief. Less successful is the attempt to take on the NFL, which never fully convinces. Their side of the story is explained more through their angry doctors rather than their lawyers, so we never really get a fully-rounded view of their perspective. It’s a little too safe, when the story needs a firebrand like Oliver Stone to stir things up. However, Concussion is a quality drama that is worth seeking out. It certainly gives food for thought. ***