It’s very odd that Will Smith’s new film Concussion feels so unreal even though it is based on a true story. Dealing with an important issue which affects all contact sports, the subject matter of the film is incredibly compelling and, loosely following sports news myself, something I had followed as it was happening. Smith blends pretty well into his role as Dr. Bennett Omalu very well, but like Tom Hardy in Legend, the film around him not only fails but ends up taking him down as well.
Coming from Parkland director Peter Landesman, Concussion was already on an upward climb as his JFK film was not well received at all. For the most part, Landesman seems to have issues finding a narrative stride and it’s something that he hasn’t improved upon, no matter how strong his lead actor is. At this point we know Will Smith is nominated for a Golden Globe but it seems like another Johnny Depp/Angelina Jolie/The Tourist ploy to get him to the party, although Concussion is nowhere near the level of mediocrity that that turd of a film was.
Smith is pretty commanding in the role of Omalu, a Nigerian forensic pathologist, living in Pittsburgh. He takes an intimate and spiritual approach to his work, talking to each patient he performs autopsies on, bringing an endearing love to his profession. When disgraced former NFL star “Iron” Mike Webster (Morse) is brought to his table, Omalu is troubled by what he finds in the results of former center for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Which is basically: nothing. Nothing conclusive in showing what caused the erratic death of a 50 year old city hero.
Wanting to dig deeper, Omalu pays out of his own pocket for more conclusive tests and what he finds ends up changing his life’s direction, as well as putting a large target on his back. Alongside some colleagues in the Department of Pathology at the University of Pittsburgh, he publishes his findings and names it chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Eventually, the NFL gets wind of the report and Omalu finds himself fending off hate speech and death threats, which leads to his work and profession being in question. Unflappable, he continues to stand by his work and trying to let the truth be heard.
One of the biggest faults in this film is the generalization of the story and characters we always see in “maverick scientist/doctor” movies. Omalu isn’t very popular in his work place because of his odd style of closeness he shares towards his patients. This causes his co worker Danny (Mike O’Malley) to dislike him greatly, leading to a meeting with Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), the lead Allegheny County Medical Examiner and Omalu’s boss, who tells him to basically blend in. The obvious dulling down of our main.
This is just some of the manipulation that Landesman repeatedly tries to pull of in this movie by way of unoriginality. The sheer fact that Alec Baldwin’s character, Steelers team doctor Dr. Julian Bailes, has a Newton’s Cradle sitting on his desk irked me, especially when it’s the one thing in the room Webster gravitates towards when he goes to beg him for help.
Other than that, it feels that Will Smith has speech after speech that feel like complete Oscar pandering for his highlight reel. If people think Leonardo DiCaprio is begging for a golden statue then they haven’t seen the depths the Fresh Prince will go to get himself in the conversation. The whole thing feels as desperate as the need to make Omalu’s love story in this film work, an all too easy pairing up with Prema Mutiso (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), also an immigrant from Africa that becomes a boarder at his house. None of it feels real in any way.
In the crush of all these award seeking films in the month of December, Concussion constantly struggles to keep it’s head above the sea of manipulative melodrama that threatens to drag it down throughout. The brutal fact that Sony had the film’s main focus toned down so not to anger the National Football League should speak lengths about it’s actual impact once the movie ends. It makes everything feel too clean cut and blameless, as if to say “they ignored us before, but everything is cool now”. Where is the conversation in that? What can we learn from that? Is the message “don’t worry, eventually they listen”? Plainly, that sucks. I give Concussion a two and a half out of five.