A fascinating true story gets brow beaten down into this dull, rote, insistently bland vehicle that should have been an Oscar glory march for Will Smith. Flat, earnest and suffering from dramatic constipation, Concussion is so heavy-handed it can’t get out from under its own self-importance.
The story of concussive head injuries in sport and their long term effects is such a ripe subject for exploration and one that is so relevant given how adherent to sport the western world is. In regards to the United States, the subject has made it to the screen in Steve James’s insightful 2012 documentary Head Games and PBS’ news article League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis. Known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the syndrome was discovered by forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu whilst conducting an autopsy of a former NFL player Mike Webster. Upon discovery, he researched further into other players, both alive and deceased, to confirm this alarming medical condition.
Adapted from the 2009 GQ article entitled ‘Game Brain’ by Jeanne Marie Laskas, director and screenwriter Peter Landesman casts Will Smith as Nigerian born Dr Omalu in what must’ve read on paper as Oscar Bait for all involved. In Landesman adaptation, he’s fused in a sub plot love story with another African import Preema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) amid the repeated attempts from the NFL to either silence or discredit his work. Supporting Omalu through this campaign of the little guy fighting Goliath is grizzled Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin) and employer Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks).
What should be an insightful, educational, sometimes terrifying reality check into the impact of contact sports and the influence of big money over it gives way for repetitive preaching and moralistic aggrandising of the highest order.
Will Smith seems to have two characters in film, the smart ass quippy leading man (Hitch, Bad Boys, Men In Black) or the dour-super-constipated man (Seven Pounds, The Pursuit Of Happyness, After Earth) and here it is most definitely the latter. Sporting a strong Nigerian accent, that he pulls off well, it’s all autocratic dialogue for the Smithinator in one of his least interesting turns. Look, he’s definitely gunning for a Best Actor nod here, but with very little in the way of subtlety and nuance to work with, it’s entirely one note.
The trite subplot of his love story, which bears no service to the actual plot at all, comes off like a weekday soap opera, only slowing the movie down. Both Smith and Mbatha-Raw have chemistry but the whole thing comes off like a teacher-student interaction. A late inclusion of a health scare further enhances it’s melodramatics that simply doesn’t need to be there.
The corporate meddling and smear campaigning from the NFL is severely under serviced, though in a few crucial scenes there are glimmers of greatness. Given the wealth of media coverage on the subject and the early days rejection from the footballing giant, most of this is sidelined for a couple of media blasts and a press conference. Given how gob smacking the denials of the medical evidence was – I can’t understand why this arc wasn’t played with the energy and disbelief that it deserved. Given the urgency, Concussion insists on playing it heavy rather than ramping up the outrage. (I wonder what this film could’ve been had the approach given to The Big Short been engaged here)
Whilst it’s intentions are noble, Concussion is a bland experience. Rote dialogue, unnecessary sub plotting and heavy handed direction all mar what could’ve been a cracking biopic into a fascinating and terrifying reality of contact sports.
CONCUSSION is in CINEMAS NOW!