Concussion: Compromised Biopic, Elevated by Will Smith’s Star Performance

concussion_1_smithDespite its timely subject and Will Smith’s solid performance, Concussion, the story of Dr. Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian-born forensic pathologist who discovered a link between playing football, concussions, and the brain disease CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) that can cause dementia and death, is a vastly disappointing enterprise, a conventional biopic based on a safe, soft and platitudinous script.

Indeed, in spite of the particularities of the dramatic personas and the socio-political contexts in which they operated, Concussion  follows to the letter the familiar Hollywood format of a single heroic man, who fights against a corrupt and greedy system (in this case the NFL).  In moments, this well-intentioned but compromised movie is embarrassing to watch–or rather listen to– due to the overly simplistic speeches made by Dr. Omalu, as well as his supporters and foes.

concussion_2_smithOn the one hand, the movie fails to be a serious call to arms the NFL to clean up its act, and on the other it fails to convince as human interest story, a tale in which more than a few individuals lost their lives, usually by killing themselves. (More about this later).

Concussion wants to play it safe, be critical but not too critical,  offensive to some but not all, fact-based but also spiritual and inspirational.  It’s a movie that intends to serve as a warning to parents, who might be worried about their gridiron-inclined offspring that, as Omalu puts it, “God did not intend for us to play football.”  At one point, an observer notes, “If ten percent of mothers feel football is too dangerous, it’s over,” but not much is made of this statement, either.

Writer-director Peter Landesman has gone out of his way to make a story fit into a dramatic mold, alternating melodrama and romance with earnest warnings, resulting in a middle-brow, middle-of the road movie. His safe approach may account for the fact that there has not been any serious debate among experts over Concussion’s scientific evidence.

concussion_3_smithNot to forget or underestimate: With all its good intent to serve as a warning to young athletes, Concussion is first and foremost a star vehicle for Will Smith, who gives a admirable performance as the crusading Omalu. Boasting a flawless Nigerian accent, Smith commands the screen with his natural charisma and gravitas.

Omalu is introduced testifying as an expert witness in a murder case, wearing his numerous degrees and enormous medical knowledge, as he explains his passion for finding out why people die. Later, we watch him do autopsies for the Allegheny County coroner’s office in Pittsburg.  Not an ordinary physician by any measure, he has his own eccentricities, such as throwing his tools away after each autopsy.  A religious man, he also prays before his operations, asking the spirit of the dead for assistance: “I can’t do this alone,” he whispers to his corpses. “I need your help to tell the world what happened to you.”

Omalu enjoys the moral and pragmatic support of his supervisor, Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks).  Though he knows little about American football, he performs the autopsy on Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Steeler center Mike Webster.  In the opening scene, Webster (David Morse) has descended into madness.  “You’ve got to fix this,” he screams at the former Steeler physician, Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwyn), but Webster dies soon after, and Omalu is under pressure to explain the specific causes of his death.

concussion_4_smithAfter ordering numerous tests, including some for which he paid out of his own pocket, Omalu holds that the head banging and concussions that Webster sustained during his career damaged his brain in a similar way to the injuries suffered by boxers from heavy blows in the ring

Soon, other NFL players are having similar mental breakdowns and deaths, including Andre Waters (Richard T. Jones) and Justin Strzelczyk (Matthew Willig).  Gaining access to their brains and corpses, Omalu diagnosed them as suffering from CTE.

Dissatisfied with his work, initially, the NFL ignores Omalu’s findings, before going further and demanding a retraction.  Though the doctor has misgivings about what Wecht describes as “going to war with a corporation that owns a day of the week,” he perseveres, and in fact gets even more committed to his cause.

concussion_6_smithFearing of alienating the female segment of the potential audience, the narrative then depicts  the good doctor’s romance with a beautiful young Kenyan, Prema Musito (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who is at first his boarder per a request from the church.

We don’t expect a Hollywood biopic–and a star vehicle at that–to follow closely the facts.  But Concussion barely hints that the NFL retaliation led to federal prosecution against Omalu’s mentor Wecht, and that his pregnant wife Musito was followed while driving to her home in a scary way that led to a tragedy.

The key to the film’s many shortcomings is clear.  Among other effects, the Sony hacking scandal last year disclosed plainly how the studio interfered with the creative process, how it put pressure to “soften” ideas that were reportedly bolder and stronger in the film’s original script, fearing the wrath of the National Football League.  In an essay in the N.Y. Times, Ken Belson suggested that the strategy used by the studio was to market the film more as a whistle-blower story than as a condemnation of football as an American institution or the NFL league as an organization.

End Note:

The film’s first reel is quite promising.  In a crowded room of fans, Mike Webster reminisces about his time in the NFL. The speech is sort of state of the union address, though his days are numbered.  In the next scene, Webster is shown living out of his car, estranged from his family, and suffering some excruciating pains. Two scenes later, Webster has killed himself.  Webster is just the first of many football heroes (identified by name) to experience decline and demise, manifest in both physical and mental despair.