Peter Landesman’s Concussion is the kind of movie I probably would have passed on if Columbia Pictures hadn’t been promoting it as awards-worthy, meaning they not only had a critics’ screening but also made sure we got year-end screeners for our “consideration.” Will Smith and I have long been on shaky footing (actually, 2008’s Seven Pounds struck me as grounds for divorce), and the subject matter didn’t grab me. Granted, I had been one of the few who actually liked Landesman’s Parkland (2013), but not enough to tip the scales. Still, if you go out of your way to make sure I see your movie, I’ll give it a shot. The surprise was that it almost worked — up to a point — and my issues with the movie had little to do with Will Smith. In fact, I liked Smith here and bought into his characterization, including (mostly) his Nigerian accent. Score one point for the film.
The film scores further points in managing to hold the interest while waiting to get to the crux of a story that we go into the theater knowing — that pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu (Smith) is going to uncover the link between brain damage and professional football players who suffer repeated concussions. Oh, it’s nothing exactly world-astounding — little about the film is — but it’s efficient and effective in establishing the film as well as the characters who inhabit it or otherwise drive the story. Within about 20 minutes, the film has laid out its course with economy — and a smattering of wit — and it manages to follow it fairly effectively for a solid hour. We’re introduced to football great Mike Webster (an almost unrecognizable David Morse) and watch his rapid descent into drug-addled, uncontrollable wild man — and ultimately his death. We meet Omalu and get a crash course in his quirks and qualifications. In turn, Omalu meets his future wife Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). And, of course, we get to the central issue when Omalu becomes intrigued by what caused Webster’s death.
As long as the film stays on that path, it’s pretty good agitprop and passable drama. Writer-director Landesman (at least based on the films he’s written) seems to be a kind of throwback to the old Warner Bros. “ripped from the headlines” tabloid school of the 1930s — or he would be if his movies were 80 minutes long and not two hours. That extra length, however, tends to remove him from the hard-hitting exposé realm of directors like Michael Curtiz and Mervyn LeRoy of that era and plop him more into the realm of the 1950s and ’60s social relevance of Stanley Kramer — with all the bloat that suggests. He tends to like for his characters to make speeches. (Smith gets at least two — one to an actual audience — and Mbatha-Raw gets three.)
However, where Concussion falters lies less in its sense of its own importance and more in the film’s plunge into shameless (and inconclusive) melodrama, followed by a quick rush to whittle the events of several years down to a handful of scenes. Were NFL henchman really following Prema? Did Omalu beat the crap out of a piece of drywall in a fit of anger? Did his hair grey-up along the sides in the space of three years? Or is that just Hollywood-speak for “time has passed”? I don’t know, but slapped down in the space given, it works about as well as the sudden bout of the mystical when Mike Webster’s ghost pops in for a cameo.
The most surprising thing about Concussion is that it is surprisingly forthright in its condemnation of the violence of football and the NFL cover-up on the topic. Oh, the film tosses in a few lip-service lines about the “grace” of football (illustrated via conveniently slow-motion footage) and forgiveness, but it’s a lot harder on the sport and those who head it up than I expected it to be — certainly harder than the leaked emails from the infamous Sony hack indicated. On the one hand, it’s the sort of thing that’s perfectly in line with all manner of “little guy takes on the system” stories that have gone down easily enough with audiences for years. But how that sort of story plays when the system is football and the NFL remains to be seen. Rated PG-13 for thematic material, including some disturbing images, and language.