By: Muneeb Arshid
If you are a big football fan (the American style, of course), you have undoubtedly heard about the numerous storylines- many of the negative variety- circling around the National Football League (NFL) offices in New York. These headlines cover the entire spectrum of PR issues for the NFL, ranging from the use of performance-enhancing drugs, domestic violence or, arguably the biggest issue of them all, concussions. The concussion issue has become a very serious issue, not only within the NFL but also in the other major sports leagues such the National Hockey League (NHL) and Major League Baseball (MLB), with all three leagues implementing new policies to reduce the risk of further head injury. Concussion chronicles the very important story about the discovery of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) by Dr. Bennet Omalu (played by Will Smith). The plot segues from the initial discovery to the vitriolic battle between the hostile NFL and the concerned Omalu, with Omalu and Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin) playing major roles.
This is a very important and relevant issue that has been brought to the forefront of not only the sports world but has captivated the general news world as well. However, if you have been living under a rock, Concussion’s story does a decent enough job of educating those not in tune about the ramifications of the issue. Unfortunately, that’s all Concussion really does as it underwhelms in quite a few facets. For myself personally, as not only a football fan but a sports fan in general, I already had a deeper understanding of the issue than most due to the prominence of concussions in multiple sports around the world. Therefore, for me, Concussion ended up being a very disappointing affair; it was not terrible by any means, just disappointing as it failed to capitalize on its potential.
Let’s start with what works in the film, and that begins with the performance given by Will Smith as Dr. Omalu. Will Smith puts forth his most heartfelt performance in years, a performance that could’ve gone wrong in so many ways. The most obvious aspect of his performance that could’ve easily derailed the film was the Nigerian accent that he adopted. It was surprisingly very nuanced and expertly executed with Smith portraying the facial expressions accompanying the accent itself in a genuinely believable manner. I’ve got to say, for the most part, Smith’s accent is consistently strong throughout the entire movie, something which cannot be said for his co-star Gugu Mbatha-Raw, playing Omalu’s wife, Prema. I’ll get back to her character a little further down. The accent may be the most obvious feature of Smith’s performance, but it is only one part of a very rounded performance, something Smith has not delivered in nearly a decade.
There is a sense of both urgency and personal responsibility with Dr. Omalu and you feel that from Smith’s performance. It’s Dr. Omalu that is driving the narrative and it’s his character that resonates with the viewer. His drive and ambition in finding the cause of death of the players and holding those responsible (the NFL) for knowing about the risks of concussion to the players is admirable and emotionally engaging. Dr. Omalu may be someone who is portrayed as an outsider, someone who doesn’t understand football, but his strengths as a doctor mean he understands matters that concern life and death; what Smith portrays is the love of life that Omalu has for everyone. As a coroner, he becomes obligated to determine what is going on, regardless of if he has to go up against a major corporation in the NFL, a corporation that “owns a day of the week,” a reference to the league’s near monopoly on American television sets on Sundays for half a calendar year.
Other than Smith, there are bits and pieces of other aspects of this film that do work, but only to a certain extent. First off, let’s get on with Dr. Omalu’s wife, Prema Mutiso, portrayed by the wonderful Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle). Raw’s performance in Belle was absolutely outstanding, garnering rave reviews from around the world. Unfortunately, Raw’s performance in Concussion feels shoehorned into the film, a means of progressing Dr. Omalu’s life while his fight against the NFL advanced and took centre stage. Don’t mistake this as claiming that Raw shouldn’t be in this film at all; rather, when a filmmaker has a chance to give the spouse some actual meat to their character and not serve as filler, they need to do so regardless of how minor their role may be. There were a couple instances where Concussion had the chance to branch off into a unique plot point involving Prema which would have made her character arc considerably more interesting, but the film fails to follow through. Her backstory is filled in for roughly 2 minutes before she takes on the very generic role of just being the spouse of Dr. Omalu, and that’s that.
In terms of the plot, director Peter Landesman takes a very straightforward approach in telling the story of Dr. Omalu and his fight that began due to the deaths of multiple legendary NFL players in Pittsburgh. For the first two acts, it does its job, albeit with some shoddy dialogue delivered from much of the supporting cast. The story progresses at a decent pace moving from Dr. Omalu initially performing the autopsy on Pittsburgh legend Mike Webster (David Morse) to the point when the NFL held its “Concussion Summit,” an event which Dr. Omalu was barred from delivering his findings on CTE. However, after this point, Concussion takes a weird turn, one that would have made sense had it been developed properly in the first two acts, and one that diverges completely from Dr. Omalu’s fight against the NFL. In a baffling move, the film instead takes a very personal glance at Omalu’s life after the “Summit” incident instead of exploring the issue further and completely halting its momentum. For a good 20 minutes, I was left wondering what I was watching, because when a movie is billed as one man’s fight against the NFL, that’s what the majority of the film should focus on. The film does return to the central narrative in the third act but it reeks of being a “rush through and tie up all of the loose ends” sort of situation rather than actively attempting to have the story flow seamlessly throughout. It’s more of a “Let’s catch up to a more recent period,” a means of reminding viewers that this is the latest in the NFL Concussion Crisis.
One thing that is quite beautifully done is the cinematography, especially the overhead shots of the Pittsburgh landscape. Most of those shots seem to have been taken during the autumn and there’s a very nice contrast between the city against the forest with the darker shots due to the shallower sun. The shots feel crisp, chilly and are absolutely gorgeous. Cinematographer Salvatore Totino has utilized the famous Heinz Field in as many shots as possible, hammering home the importance of Pittsburgh to the story. Director Landesman made sure that all the executives in the film had offices overlooking Heinz Field and whenever possible, whether the story requires at the point or not, you’ll see some shot of the stadium throughout the film as in a way to remind the viewer that this film is definitely about football and not some lesser sport.
All in all, Concussion does a decent job in telling this very important story; however, it’s only good enough for those who are in the dark about the issues surrounding the NFL. For fans of the game or those with a decent grasp of the CTE dilemma, this movie might become a bit of a bore since a lot of the material has already been covered in-depth by the likes of ESPN. However, there are elements that ultimately work in the film, none more prominent than the performance by Will Smith. I sincerely hope that there is a better film about this topic made in the near future, but as long as the NFL will combat being put within a negative limelight, that movie will not happen. Instead, we will be stuck with a very safe, very NFL-approved film as we got with Concussion.
Concussion is a very average affair that could’ve been a whole lot better in terms of supporting characters and would have benefitted from a tighter plot. Ultimately, it tries its hardest to tell a very important story that everyone should be aware of but is no match for the behemoth that is the NFL. Concussion gets a grade of C (6.1/10)