Concussion, from Writer-Director Peter Landesman, tells the story of Dr. Bennett Omalu, the pathologist that discovered CTE (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy) – the brain condition that plagues football players due to repeated concussions. However, is Omalu a good subject for a feature film?Pittsburgh pathologist Dr. Bennett Omalu (Will Smith), originally from Nigeria, is an artist of autopsies. He takes care and time, feeling he speaks for the dead as he tries to figure out cause of death in his patients. His methods drive his fellow pathologist, Daniel Sullivan (Mike O’Malley), nuts, creating a lot of animosity. When local legend, former Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster (David Morse), comes across Omalu’s table, the doctor can’t understand what made the former player go from legend to homeless wreck. He orders several expensive tests that he assures his boss and mentor, Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), he’ll pay for personally. When the results come back, Omalu discovers that Webster was suffering from brain damage caused by head trauma he suffered while playing in the NFL. More players commit suicide and Omalu studies their brains with the help of former Pittsburgh Steeler team doctor Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin). The NFL tries to shut Omalu down and discredit his research. They succeed for a time until another former NFL player, Dave Duerson (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), commits suicide with the intention of leaving his brain whole for study. Duerson, prior to his CTE kicking in, was a vocal opponent of Omalu’s research and firmly in the NFL’s camp. Duerson’s death breaks open the floodgates and Omalu is vindicated.
Usually, I don’t detail the whole film in the summary, but this is all very recent history and easily researched. The story of the science and what happens to the former players is fascinating, but the problem with this film is that it really isn’t solely about the science and CTE. The film focuses a lot on Omalu’s private life and how he meets his wife, Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). It also focuses a lot of Omalu’s faith. In fact it felt like every other shot in this film was of a cross. The audience is beaten over the head with the religious angle and it became distracting. I’m not saying that films can’t have religious themes, but the problem with them in this film is that the story shouldn’t be about Omalu, but about the science. Not to be insensitive, but the story is in the research and discovery of CTE, not in the man himself. It turns what could of been a great film into merely a good film. Also, your enjoyment of the film may vary based on your knowledge of the NFL and its history. The material will resonate more strongly with those familiar with the players affected by CTE than with those who com into the film cold.
The cast does great work here. Smith shows that he is more than just a blockbuster actor, bringing charisma and nuance to his performance as Omalu. Mbatha-Raw continues to rise as an up and coming star and does good work here as Prema. As a nurse, Prema was able to relate to Omalu’s work and help him endure the stress and pressure that came from all angles for him to drop his research. Brooks and Baldwin are great as always, with Brooks delivering the best line of the film, explaining that the NFL is a daunting opponent because, “they own a day of the week!” The supporting cast is also very good with a lot of familiar faces popping up here and there.
Overall, Concussion is a good film telling an important story. However, it is the story that is important, not Omalu himself. I don’t mean that to sound callous, but his discovery is what’s important here. The film dwells too much on Omalu and how he wants to be a good Christian and American and by the end, I was kind of like, “Enough already.” So, good, but not great. Maybe catch it when it hits Bluray or cable.