Movie Information

The Story: Fact-based story about the Pittsburgh pathologist who blew the whistle on the NFL cover-up on brain damage in football. The Lowdown: Mostly pretty effective agitprop drama, but with an unfortunate tendency toward speech-making and a rushed — and overly melodramatic — conclusion.
Genre: Fact-Based Drama
Director: Peter Landesman (Parkland)
Starring: Will Smith, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Albert Brooks, Eddie Marsan, Luke Wilson
Rated: PG-13



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.


About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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11 thoughts on “Concussion

  1. T.rex

    3 & 1/2 is good number. I would just give it 3 for the wonderful acting. it does have, as you mentioned, the typical “one man fighting the system” melodrama cliche. No, they did not hunt down the wife in a dramatic car chase. If anyone is interested in the real story I recomend watching the Frontline doc League of Denial on PBS. Dr Omalu is a great man but more than one Doctor studied these head trauma cases.
    There are two people here who must be nominated. This was the finest performance ever by Will Smith, I saw the Doctor, not the movie star and it is definitely time for the academy to give a nomination to the great, great, GREAT Albert Brooks. Al brought important humor and needed levity to the heavily clichéd script.

    • Ken Hanke

      No, they did not hunt down the wife in a dramatic car chase.

      In fairness, the film itself is not clear on whether she’s being chased or whether she just thinks she is.

  2. Bob Voorhees

    Here’s a situation that almost requires commentary in addition to Hanke’s because the man has made clear over the years that he doesn’t care for sports, and with Hanke, not liking a topic tends to prejudice his evaluation of the movie it depicts. There is much more to this movie than his review suggests. First, there is the saga of a genuine American hero, who loves this country; though not an American by birth, the doctor is a man of high intelligence, impeccable character, and skill at what he does for these athletes and nameless others. Will Smith depicts him wonderfully, his best acting ever. I had no idea that Smith would be capable of such a sensitive and caring performance. His African accent was fine and he gave us the man, Omalu, with superb skill. I wish the film had shown us more of the sport’s attempts to discredit what the doctor discovered, more on Tagliabu and his dissembling, and more on the attempts of team doctors and trainers over the years to minimize all of Omalu’s research and ideas. The movie made me think, several times, of the executives of the tobacco industry boldly lying to Congress about cigarettes in the wonderful film about that analogous situation. Greed drives human incentives say both movies with disarming clarity and effectiveness. Eventually, Omalu will be revered as a true American hero, a counter force to the dark side of football, which needs much further exploration.

    • Ken Hanke

      Setting aside the objection that I have damned the film unduly because I do not like sports movies (which actually should have made me the perfect audience for this indictment of football), Mr. Voorhees is working on a few shaky assumptions here. First of all, there’s the idea that what we’re being shown is necessarily true. In fact, what we’re being shown is a heavily altered version of the events that has been reconfigured for dramatic purposes. (Accepting it as truth is like turning in a book report based on having seen a movie without reading the book.) Second, the importance of a topic should never be confused with the importance of the movie housing it. Third, he seems to be unaware of the controversy surrounding whether or not Omalu is all he — and the movie — claims he is . (No, this controversy has not been raised by the NFL, but by his peers and isn’t grounded in the truth of his claims, but whether he is taking credit for things he didn’t do.)

      • Bob Voorhees

        Arguing/disagreeing with Ken Hanke is sometimes like being Adam in the Garden and dumping on Yahweh. Unlike Mr. Hanke, I have been a keen sports fan for about 65 years, have been a college athlete in two sports, have coached 25 years at the high school level, and routinely watch an hour of sports TV in the morning and another hour before dinner. I have never read or heard or seen anything remotely like Hanke’s comments on the “controversy” ostensibly surrounding Omalu’s character/probity and the “altered version” of events that he claims this movie is. And Hanke provides no sources. Maybe Hanke has friends in the medical community (or just dials the Heavenly Council).

        • Ken Hanke

          Boy, is this ever a pot and kettle statement, since I always feel that Mr. Voorhees’ pronouncements should be followed by, “Zardoz has spoken!” Regardless, there was no controversy surrounding Omalu’s claims until the movie came out. Obviously, you don’t read any new sources or, in fact, other critics. I suppose I should be touched — much as I was that time you sent the letter blasting me over a review I didn’t write. That you go to a Hollywood movie and accept it as factual actually does startle me.

  3. The Real World

    Ken – I told ya that people view these movies almost like documentaries. Perhaps they should know better, but they don’t.

    Anyone interested in a fuller picture of this situation, the Frontline report of late 2014 is excellent! I have zero interest in football and found this story fascinating.

    Btw, Omalu seems to be a first-rate guy but he is hardly the only important person in the real story. Female Doc from New England also played a very big and courageous role.

    • Ken Hanke

      I never debated that some people view these (and even completely fictional) movies as if they are documentaries. My debate is whether the filmmakers should have to dumb everything down to a level where that (theoretically) can’t happen. My stance is that it’s not the filmmakers’ concern and shouldn’t be — unless they start their film with the words “This is a true story” (a la Ms. Jolie’s Unbroken). There are probably people who saw Inglourious Basterds and think that Hitler was machine-gunned to death in a burning movie theater. (They also probably think that the film’s title is spelled correctly.)

      There’s an interesting NY Times article on this topic (I cannot find the link) in which includes this — “‘Movies that are not documentaries are works of fiction, whether or not they deal with real events,’ A. O. Scott, the co-chief movie critic for The Times, said. ‘The only people dumb enough not to understand this are certified intellectuals — journalists and college professors, mostly — who need fodder for columns or something apparently important but actually trivial to wring their hands about.'” On the one hand, I think he’s being disingenuous (including the idea that documentaries are invariably not works of fiction, which is demonstrably BS). On the other hand, I don’t think he’s entirely wrong.

      I maintain my earlier stance that going to a movie and accepting it as an accurate depiction of real events is like doing a book report based on having seen a movie version of a book. I do however, like the idea that there could be people in this world who have seen Ken Russell’s Lisztomania and believe that Richard Wagner came back from the grave as a combination of the Frankenstein Monster and Hitler brandishing an electric guitar machine gun with a barbed wire power cord.

  4. The Real World

    So, I maintain that movie makers can tell whatever story they want but if any cared a whit about genuineness or decency then their disclaimers would be reflective of that. But, they post vague, lame ones because they’re banking on the astonishment or emotional pull, etc. of “wow, that really happened!”….which sells more tickets. The almighty buck trumps all else, again. And Hollywood is an enthusiastic pimp.

    Now, let’s be fair, it’s not required but, if you critics were interested in the greater good, you could volunteer more explicit announcement of the significant fiction inherent in movies merely disclaimed as “Based on a true story”. Just saying. (btw, I have seen you say or allude to such in some of your reviews)

    Bottomline: better, more accurate disclaimers = fewer tickets sales.

    Never saw Lisztomania but your last sentence conjured a highly amusing mental image.

    • Ken Hanke

      I think you could put up a sign reading, “We made 99% of this up,” and it would have no meaningful effect on public perception or box office. I have honestly never heard anyone say they were going to see a movie because it was a true story. My biggest problem with all of this is that you want everything made safe for the dimmest bulb on the tree and I don’t think that’s a filmmaker’s responsibility.

      I usually point out glaring falsehoods in supposedly true story movies — especially, those that boldly claim “This is a true story,” since that is invariably an outright lie. I remember slogging my way through Song Without End, a dreadful and dreadfully phony biopic on Franz Liszt, which was subtitled “The Story of Liszt.” That was only true in the sense that my grandmother might use the word “story,” as in, “Are you telling me story?”

      Bottom line is you cannot take anything at face value (including things that tell you what is or isn’t true in a movie). Some of the biggest lies in the world are in documentaries — and this goes way back to Nanook of the North (1922) with its phony story and stagings, and the same documentarian’s highly regarded Man of Aran (1934). When the filmmaker got to Aran and found it was not the primitive society he expected, he simply created what he had expected to find.

      Many people firmly believe that one of those most famous — probably the most referenced and copied — scenes in all film, the massacre on the Odessa Steps in Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin depicts an historical event…but said massacre by the cossacks never happened.

      Shakespeare’s Richard III depicts Richard as a hunchback with a withered arm who murdered his little nephews, etc., etc. Again, research indicates none of this is true, but it not only made for aces drama, it also pleased Elizabeth I, because it made the previous royal family look bad.

      None of this is new and no amount of disclaimers is going to help.

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