The newest Will Smith film, Concussion, feels a little bit like The Ben Carson Story, except Will Smith’s character is easily the preferable Presidential candidate of the two. Dr. Bennet Omalu’s story is at once interesting and sad. It’s a shame that it’s being told so blandly. Based on a true story, Concussion is a must-see for football fans, and a gentle reminder that the NFL is a money-hungry cash cow that doesn’t really care about its athletes.
Considering the timing of Concussion’s release, some have accused it of being “Oscar-Bait.” I disagree—it came out in the middle of football season because the game is on fan’s minds every Sunday: “The same day the Church used to own,” says Albert Brooks’ character Dr. Cyril Wecht. This movie might make you reconsider your support for the brutality of the game, and if you weren’t a fan, it’ll deter you even more.
However, this is not a story about football so much as it is a story about science. At times, it even feels like an episode of House. When football players repeatedly bash into each other, they run the risk of injury, but for a long time the NFL denied the sharp decline in the quality of life for many of their athletes. It doesn’t matter how well known an athlete is, because the possibility of injury is heightened in a physical activity of this nature. Dr. Omalu realizes that many of these injuries were actually taking place in the brain, and is the only doctor who tries to do anything about it. He becomes a target.
Dr. Omalu is a forensic pathologist for the Coroner’s Office in Pittsburgh. He is a Nigerian immigrant, and Smith uses an accent for the character. At first it’s a bit jarring, but the filmic choice to introduce the character in court as an expert witness gives Smith a chance to not only show off his comedic chops, it also allows the character’s expertise to be at the forefront of our knowledge. He is an expert in not only his field of pathology; he is also a neuroscientist and holds multiple degrees. Smith brings a lot to the table in his characterization, but the first half of the film seems to be a struggle between the editors and the actors: fast cuts in the first scene alone are distracting, and might detract from some viewer’s experience.
These quick edits carry on through the science scenes, where Dr. Omalu demonstrates his methods and personal, caring, and religious nature. We get to understand Dr. Omalu very quickly… perhaps too quickly.
Dr. Omalu stands out like a sore thumb in Pittsburgh; he is overly precise at work, extremely organized at home, and not a fan of the Steelers. When he gets a body on his examination table, he talks to them respectfully as though they are still alive, and refuses to use the same operating knives twice. I won’t accuse the film of being dull, but at times the blue color palette is too calming, and Smith’s voice too soothing for an issue that is still ongoing. The urgency just doesn’t register until the bodies begin piling up. It’s about two hours long, and that feels just about right.
Lead actors Smith, Brooks, Alec Baldwin, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw are all good to great. They all get to shine in their moments, bringing both comedic and emotional resonance to the topic. I would not be surprised if any of the actors received nominations for their work despite problems with the pacing and the utterly distracting shifts in camera lens focus. The artistic effort is appreciated, but the rest of the film has a less-is-more feel, so why doesn’t the camerawork follow suit?
Concussion is a condemnation of everything that the NFL has built an empire out of and how the league abandons its players. Not only does it do that, but the film also accuses the NFL of being complicit in the stalking and threatening of Dr. Omalu, his friends, and family. It is a drama, but there is little to no screaming from people who are not the affected athletes. This is important in itself; too, because they are the ones who did not know the damage they were doing to themselves, and could have received treatment sooner.
As a fan of football, it’s hard to want to continue to support the game as it is currently played. The film doesn’t exist to offer solutions; it is an expression of frustration. I appreciated the film for the message and education, but I’m not sure that it rises to anything more than just passable.