Quite often, being based on a true story is enough to get the job done when telling a story, but when things get a little overwrought and over amplified for dramatic storytelling purposes it can take away from the story and the message that are trying to be delivered. Concussion is a story that deserves to be told, but as it overhypes the narrative of one man against a corporation the genuine message and some excellent performances get a little lost in the shuffle.
The story of Dr. Bennett Omalu (Will Smith) a forensic neuropathologist with an insatiable search for knowledge gets tasked with the autopsy of former Pittsburgh Steeler, Hall of Famer and town hero Mike Webster who has seemingly taken his own life for no reason. While everyone around him is telling him to leave it alone, he keeps going and discovers the illness which has changed the face of professional sports and especially football forever, CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) which is the result of chronic brain trauma common in sports like football. However not everyone is a believer in the science and some will stop at nothing to make sure that Sunday’s stay sacred and untouched for those who worship at the altar of the grid iron.
Without question, this is an important story to be told. Unfortunately Concussion gets a little lost in the us versus them mentality of the narrative that it wants to sell and loses the necessity of making sure that information is out there in order to help change a culture that has spent generations on the field of battle known as the football field.
Writer/Director Peter Landesman working from the GQ article “Game Brain” tries a little too hard to shoe horn this story into the mold of something like “The Insider” that tackled the corruption in the tobacco industry. Make no mistake, the similarities between Big Tobacco and the National Football League are unavoidable to see, however the narrative never creates any genuine tension and it plays a little more like a story that would have unfolded in the 1920’s when Alexander Fleming stumbled upon the discovery of penicillin. On top of the forced “good vs. evil” narrative that is being foisted on the audience it never addresses the long term issue of creating an environment when the culture in a sport has to be changed for the long term benefit of its players. Since Head Trauma isn’t necessarily an injury that can be seen by the naked eye, in a sport of gladiators it was almost sacrosanct to leave a game because you got your bell rung and felt a little dizzy, you just walked it off and took whatever you had to take in order to keep going. While the narrative does touch on this a little, it isn’t enough and we end back to the science of it all, that while sound isn’t necessarily the bigger issue at hand. In spite of some of these story weaknesses in the script, the material gets elevated by some very strong performances.
As our hero and protagonist Dr. Omalu; Will Smith is certainly trying hard enough to get the material over, his likable portrayal of this man devoted to science and truth who is also a little culturally & social naive makes him an interesting, but ultimately underwritten character. We admire his devotion to the facts at hand, but if he didn’t have any of his support system around him the world may still have never heard about this traumatic brain condition. Thankfully the supporting players in this film are really what elevate this past a simply missed opportunity of a film. With the likes of Alec Baldwin as his NFL insider, Albert Brooks as his friend and mentor along with the fantastic Gugu Mbatha-Raw as his roommate and eventual love interest to the great David Morse as Mike Webster to really capture the desperation and helplessness of these men who see their own minds slipping away from them, this movie could have very easily been forgotten.
Ultimately, push Will Smith to the background just a little bit and when you do Concussion makes for a powerful ensemble piece that not only gets the information out there but reminds us that even if we can’t make a change for the better, at the very least all the parties involved need to have the information at hand in order to make the right decision for themselves. That’s how you change a culture engrained in society, it just takes time and ineffective bad guys don’t do anyone any favors in getting your point across.