Concussion (2015)

Posted by Joel Copling on December 25, 2015

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is certainly the stuff of compelling drama, but writer/director Peter Landesman's "Concussion" is not that movie. This is a film that plays it safe with its central issue, which seems to go against the method chosen by its subject, a man who stares adversarial voices in the face and resolutely states that he will stand by his sworn principles. He is, after all, a doctor who swore an oath to protect his patients. In the other corner of the proverbial ring is the System against which he fights, one of the established entertainment capitals of the world. It's a battle between a common-sense desire to fight for safety and an openly ignorant desire to keep the dollars rolling in and the players playing.

The doctor in question is Bennet Omalu (Will Smith, fine but overplaying his character's accent to sometimes comical degrees), a Nigerian immigrant whose aptitude in the medical field is left in little question by an amusing opening scene wherein he is on the stand to clear or confirm the guilt of a death-row inmate. This scene and the one following it, which establishes Bennet's oddball tendency to "comfort" the corpses on which he must perform autopsy, are solid in setting up the character. What follows is consistently underwhelming. The case of Mike Webster (David Morse in performance that is odd at best and over-the-top at worst), former center for the Pittsburgh Steelers, falls in his lap. The autopsy reveals nothing about why he died (only the "how," in which Bennet invests less) at the too-young age of fifty.

This death coincides with the mysterious deaths, most of them suicides, of other former Steelers. An examination of Webster's brain reveals an excess of proteins that contributed to his depression and deteriorating mental health, which every other doctor attributed to early-onset Alzheimer disease. The latter, of course, did not track for Bennet, and he employs the help of Drs. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin, quite good), a former team trainer who had a crisis of conscience, Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), Bennet's own boss, and Steven DeKosky (Eddie Marsan), a current official with the NFL who hates what Bennet shows him but cannot deny it as a scientist. The problem is that the league is hellbent on burying Bennet's evidence.

What follows is, sadly, quite repetitive, as Bennet is asked multiple times to present evidence and does so to no avail. This keeps time with a sweet but ineffectual romance that blossoms between Bennet and Prema Mutiso (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, better than this thin role deserves), a Nairobian immigrant who simply lodges with Bennet before something deeper comes in between them. "Concussion" picks up after a shift forward in time, as stakes for the NFL reach such a state of alarm that they can no longer ignore Bennet's evidence, and the final series of shots ends things on a rightly bitter note. It's a case of too little too late for a movie that simply goes through the motions with a story that might have benefited from more urgency.

Film Information

Will Smith (Dr. Bennet Omalu), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Prema Mutiso), Alec Baldwin (Dr. Julian Bailes), Albert Brooks (Dr. Cyril Wecht), David Morse (Mike Webster), Arliss Howard (Dr. Joseph Maroon), Mike O'Malley (Daniel Sullivan), Eddie Marsan (Dr. Steven DeKosky), Hill Harper (Christopher Jones), Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Dave Duerson), Bitsie Tulloch (Keana Stzrelczyk), Matthew Willig (Justin Strzelczyk), Stephen Moyer (Dr. Ron Hamilton), Richard T. Jones (Andre Waters), Paul Reiser (Dr. Elliot Pellman), Luke Wilson (Roger Goodell).

Directed and written by Peter Landesman, based in part on the GQ article "Game Brain" by Jeanne Marie Laskas.

Rated PG-13 (thematic material including disturbing images, language).

123 minutes.

Released on December 25, 2015.