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Concussion (2015)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Will, You Can't Handle The Truth"
2 stars

"Concussion" is a film that is about a man who is on a mission and will not let anything stand in his way of accomplishing the difficult task that he has set out for himself. The trouble is that the man on the mission here is Will Smith himself and the mission is to appear in a film that is such an obvious piece of Oscar bait that voters hardly even need to see it before handing him the Best Actor prize. As it turns out, he may have better luck soliciting votes from those who don't actually see it than from those who do because the latter will know that the film is a generally banal stab at muckraking cinema that wastes a powerful and important social issue and is undermined at practically every turn by its essential timidity and an embarrassingly hammy and shrilly conceived star turn from Smith that all but begs you to give him an Oscar despite the substandard nature of his efforts.

The film tells the story of Nigerian-born, Pittsburgh forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu (Smith) and his attempts to bring to light evidence of the dangers that can befall football players as the result of the concussions that are an inevitable result of a game in which no small part of the appeal comes from the skull-cracking hits that are staples of the highlight reels. This was not the result of any particular game plan from the overachieving Omalu--he is so unfamiliar with football that when Steelers legend Mike Webster (David Morse) turns up in his morgue after suffering from memory loss, mood swings and depression that left him homeless and despondent, he has no idea who the man was or what he meant to the city. What does intrigue him is how a seemingly healthy former athlete could have such a severe psychological breakdown at such a relatively young age. After ordering some expensive tests to be done on Webster's brain--at his own expense, of course--he discovers a massive degree of neurological deterioration that he believes to be the direct result of all of the head-first collisions that Webster endured in his years on the field.

Dubbing the condition chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), Omalu publishes his findings in a medical journal and is fully convinced that the NFL will use his discoveries as a way of making the game safer for the players. As it turns out, the NFL has a slightly different slant and does everything in its considerable power to sandbag Omalu and bury his research so as not to do anything to potentially jeopardize their ridiculously lucrative operation. Before long, Omalu and his wife, Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) are receiving veiled and not-so-veiled threats and even his boss at the coroner's office (Albert Brooks) suffers intimidation at the hands of the FBI. Nevertheless, Omalu continues to press on with his research, aided by one-time Steelers team doctor Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), and after the high-profile deaths of football players Justin Strzelczyk (Matthew Willig) and Dave Duerson (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje)--both of whom were also suffering from CTE at the time of their deaths (when Duerson committed suicide, he shot himself in the chest in order to save the brain so that it could be studied)--the story eventually becomes too big for even the NFL to completely bury.

In telling a true-life story about the dark and deadly side to an activity formerly known for providing people with such heedless pleasure and the lengths that the people making billions off of said activity would go through to silence any possible whistleblowers, "Concussion" clearly aspires to be the next "The Insider," Michael Mann's powerful and muckraking work about the tobacco industry and its efforts to conceal evidence about the dangers of what they were selling. That film, one of Mann's finest, did an excellent job of juggling any number of narrative balls in the air--the stuff involving whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand's efforts to bring those secrets to light through a "60 Minutes" expose, the stuff involving the "60 Minutes" people being torn by their desire to report the news and the demands of their corporate owners to not ruffle any potentially litigious feathers and the stuff about how Wigand's desire to do the right thing very nearly destroyed his life--in clear and concise ways that both entertained and edified viewers; this was one of those movies where you came out of it feeling a little smarter than when you came in.

By comparison, "Concussion"--and please forgive me for the painfully obvious quip--fumbles things practically from the start and never really recovers. The screenplay by Peter Landesman, who also directed, takes a story that should have made for a smart and insightful story and dumbs it down into just another lame melodrama in which every narrative beat deploys at exactly the expected moment prescribed by Screenplay 101 textbooks--there is never any sense of the messiness or unruliness of real life to interfere with the proceedings. Instead, the film is more concerned with building up Omalu's credentials as a living saint--complete with any number of scenes that seem to have been devised specifically to serve as clips in year-end award shows--than in making him into a relatable character. (I just saw a terrible movie that was made to make a case for the sainthood of Mother Teresa and even that seemed more subtle than what is on display here.) Even in the scenes where Omalu isn't front and center, they are more often than not there to remind us of how brilliant and heroic he is--in what is quite possibly the worst of a long series of bad scenes, Baldwin's character actually has to deliver an impassioned monologue to Omalu telling him at length that his problem is that he just cares too much, dammit, and that he is doomed to failure for precisely that reason.

Another problem with the film is that it does a terrible job of detailing the consequences that Omalu suffered as the result of trying to get people to pay attention to his findings. If this film was going to work at all, we need to get a good sense of the pressure that Omalu was working under in his David vs. Goliath struggle but none of that comes across here. There are a couple of threatening phone calls that are about as generic as can be and the aforementioned FBI raid sequence comes off very badly because the film never makes it clear whether the FBI was behind it as a way to shut Omalu up or not--the implication is certainly there but there is no real evidence to support it and the entire thing is eventually explained in a throwaway during the end credit title cards. In an even more perplexing bit, the pregnant Prema is followed around town by a mysterious car--she easily eludes it with no problem but winds up suffering a miscarriage in the very next scene that suggests that there was something else that joined the two scenes that was eliminated at the last second. As with the FBI raid, the scene offers up plenty of smoke but so little fire that it raises more questions than tempers.

What makes "Concussion" so frustrating is that the ingredients for a good movie are clearly there but wound up getting shoved to the side the minute that Will Smith signed on to play Omalu. Smith has given a number of excellent performances over the years--his work as Muhammed Ali in "Ali" was a legitimately great piece of work that was so much more than a mere imitation--but he seems to have determined in recent years that he needs an Oscar to truly prove himself and has begun seeking out projects that offer him the opportunity to do all the dramatic grandstanding that he can get away with. This kind of showboating may result in a nomination but it does the film no favors because there is never a single moment when we are able to relate to Omalu as a regular person--he is held in such reverence throughout (the other characters mostly appear to be paying homage to him rather than simply talking to him) that the whole thing becomes stultifying after a while. The only performance in the film that actually works is the supporting turn by Albert Brooks as Omalu's boss--not only does he bring a welcome sense of humor to the proceedings (his lines are so sharp that I wouldn't be surprised to learn that he had something to do with the writing of them) but he is the only member of the cast who doesn't appear to be interested solely in deifying Will Smith for our benefit.

The story of the discovery of CTE and the attempts by the NFL to cover it up in order to maximize profits is one that could have been made into a powerful and thought-provoking film that might genuinely changed attitudes towards football, both professional and amateur, if it had been put in the right hands. Alas, a combination of a confused screenplay and timid direction transforms this potential powder keg into little more than a wet squib--the NFL probably still won't be that happy with it but they will probably get over it fairly quickly. Instead of a rabble-rousing work, we are left with little more than a two-hour testimonial to the greatness of Will Smith and quite frankly, I need that like I need a blow to the head.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=28550&reviewer=389
originally posted: 12/26/15 13:06:45
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 AFI Film Festival For more in the 2015 AFI Film Fest series, click here.

User Comments

8/14/17 Luisa Great film, underrated. Great acting from Will Smith. 4 stars
1/04/16 FireWithFire AND SO IS THIS BLOODY MOVIE ! ! ! ! !. 1 stars
12/27/15 mr.mike Will Smith is a bloody load of old rubbish. 1 stars
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  25-Dec-2015 (PG-13)
  DVD: 29-Mar-2016


  DVD: 29-Mar-2016

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