Cliches cause pacing fumble for ‘Concussion’
Nobody wants to admit that something they like might be harmful. When a person lights up a cigarette, they know they’re potentially endangering their own lungs, but what if science told you that smoking that cigarette would lead to the death of the cashier who sold it to you? It’s tough to swallow that the thing you enjoyed, the thing you’d elevated to an almost holy national pastime, was potentially killing the people involved. That’s the big issue in Concussion, and it’s not an easy one to answer, no matter how many schmaltzy cliches are layered on top of it.
Will Smith stars as Dr. Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian pathologist who made a shocking connection between NFL head injuries and brain damage. Dr. Omalu is not a football fan—he’s not even a U.S. citizen—when he is tasked with performing an autopsy on Mike Webster (David Morse), an NFL legend who suffered from mental issues and addiction problems before dying at age 50. The doctor finds the circumstances surrounding Webster’s death to be very odd and begins to dig a bit deeper. Webster, sadly, is only the first player to perish, and soon a pattern emerges between the head injuries they experienced on the field and a cascading series of brain issues that often result in suicide.
While his work is very controversial, Dr. Omalu is encouraged to continue by Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks) and Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), a former NFL team doctor who is ridden with guilt about sending players back onto the field with possible brain injuries. Naturally, the NFL is none too pleased about this, and they create their own studies to try to discredit the Nigerian doctor and his work, even having the FBI arrest Dr. Wecht on a litany of seemingly ridiculous charges. Dr. Omalu is not swayed and believes it is his divine duty to bring this issue to light in an effort to make the game safer for those who play.
That story alone is interesting. Even if it is, at times, rather cheesy to hear Smith deliver accented speeches about God, the issue of head injuries in the NFL is a very real one. Couple that with attempts by the league to combat the issue with PR and their own “science” and you’ve got a pretty fascinating tale about corporate greed and coverups.
But even though there’s enough meat on that bone for a good film, Concussion has to go shoving overly sentimental moments down our throats like we’re foie gras ducks! I was particularly disappointed with the one-dimensional Prema Muiso (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) Dr. Omalu’s wife who only seems to exist to have pep talks with him when he questions his mission in life. She appears as a Kenyan woman needing a place to live, then suddenly becomes his girlfriend, then his wife, then pregnant with his child. We know nothing about her, and her existence is merely to humanize the doctor, something already displayed by his drive to stop debilitating injuries in NFL players. While there is nothing wrong with Mbatha-Raw’s performance, the scenes with Dr. Omalu and Prema seem to drag the usually fast pace to a screeching halt and overdose the audience with monologues and messages that make the whole thing feel like a Hallmark card instead of a fascinating based-on-a-true-story cinematic experience.
The area where the film most resonates is with the former players who are finding their lives destroyed by these injuries. It’s easy for the league to dismiss some of them as addicts or reckless men who spiraled out of control when they lost the limelight, but Dr. Omalu’s research shows that they are victims of a business that might have knowingly endangered them, and then blamed them for their own demises. The strongest message, though it’s only briefly addressed, is that fans will revolt at the “pussification” of their beloved sport, even if they know the men they’re rooting for probably won’t live to see their sixties because they’re giving each other brain damage for the entertainment of the masses. That scathing indictment should have been the focal point instead of the backdrop.