I’ll grant this about Concussion, the docudrama exposing the deadly ills of repetitive blows to the head in the NFL—it’s not didactic or even self righteous, as one might suspect and be put off by. Instead, it’s reasonably smart, balanced and, despite a matter-of-fact approach, deeply human. It also brings a fresh and informative perspective to the medical issue, describing how the deteriorating downstream physiological effects of head banging were discovered and the NFL’s efforts to suppress those findings. And nestled deep inside all the corporate wrangling lies a compelling immigrant success story to boot.
We begin shortly after the new millennium with “Iron” Mike Webster (David Morse, excellent as the tortured lineman), a four-time Super Bowl Champion now disfigured, hearing voices and practically homeless living in his pickup truck. Even though he’s an adored legend of the city of Pittsburgh, no one seems to notice or care until he commits suicide and is rolled in on a gurney for an autopsy. The pathologist on duty, Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith), happens to be from Nigeria, doesn’t have U.S. citizenship and by default is immune to the commercially spoon-fed love of America’s most watched sport and the machinery surrounding it. Against minor protests around the morgue (don’t defile our hero), Omalu gets down to his clinical task and initially finds Webster’s brain normal but his curiosity piqued by evidence of Webster’s deranged habits (pulling out his teeth and glueing them back in), he keeps digging, spending several thousands of of his own dollars for outside tests to arrive at the CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) diagnosis we’re all now too acutely aware of.
Getting to that “Aha!” moment isn’t so much the challenge—that comes early and easily—the hurdle manifests when Omalu tries to have the discovery accepted by the medical community, where the burden of proof among skeptical academics is high, and many, as the movie lazily implies, might be in the pocket of the NFL or look unfavorably upon a “quack” from a country afar. It’s also during this period of professional turmoil that Omalu is introduced to a Nigerian woman through his church (Gugu Mbatha-Raw so good in Belle) and a slow-budding, yet palpable courtship ensues. The subplot of the foreigners’ pursuit of the American dream (and the horrors encountered along the way) anchors the film with heart even as the nastiness of corporate spin, big money and public denial stymy Omalu’s attempts to inform the public of a serious health crisis.
Smith, who has always been a capable performer, nestles down here and does a fantastic job with the accent and quiet chemistry he forges with Mbatha-Raw. It’s his most emotionally mature performance since The Pursuit of Happyness. Albert Brooks adds a warm comical layer as Omalu’s boss, who later comes under FBI scrutiny for using his public office for personal gain (a stamp borrowed and a fax or two made). The implication is that Omalu and his supporters are up against a coverup, and the people behind it will go to great extremes to keep things quiet, but with such half-reveals never revisited, the narrative becomes frustratingly wishy-washy and flimsy. The director, Peter Landsman, making his second feature, seems to shy away when it’s time to roll up one’s sleeves and dig in. It’s a missed opportunity, but the able cast keeps the film from listing too much as a result, with nuanced performances that hold despite the rickety framework.
Beyond Omalu’s dogged determination, ever carried forward by a steady dose of avuncular encouragement from his boss, the film’s most effecting nuggets come in the depiction of the painful downstream effects of CTE long after the player has left the gridiron. There’s a terrifying scene in which former Steeler lineman Justin Strzelczyk (Matthew Willig), a mountain of a man who believes he’s suffering from bipolar disorder and depression, flies into a rage at his kids and diminutive wife—the grizzly in The Revenant would be no match. More telling is Dave Duerson (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a Super Bowl warrior turned member of the NFL brass who keeps Omalu and his findings at bay and even berates another fellow player, broke and suffering from CTE, telling him to “get it together.” The later revelation that Duerson himself has not escaped unscathed, leads to a powerful moment of realization and atonement.
Ultimately there are no real winners in Concussion. It’s a cautionary tale that should make those driving the NFL moneymaker take pause more than they already have. For the rest of us mortals, it strips another layer of glitz from the game, humanizes the players and shows us once again how much they have to contend with after the fanfare and the big paydays are past. It’s also likely to make parents second guess pee-wee and high school football, even as the film seems to realize that its story won’t lessen the appeal of fantasy football or the viewership of the real thing (though it just might improve how the safety of the game is perceived and pursued).