“Concussion” takes on professional football and leaves the NFL whimpering.
All while giving us Will Smith’s best performance ever.
The subject of this latest offering from writer/director Peter Landesman (“Parkland,” “Kill the Messenger”) is football’s ghastly heritage of head injuries that over decades have left former players with severe mental and emotional problems.
Smith portrays Bennet Omalu, a real-life pathologist who in the early 2000s virtually singlehandedly took on the National Football League, saying it covered up the growing ranks of former players with serious neurological issues.
Omalu named the condition chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and announced that it was the result of not just severe concussions but of the repeated violent physical encounters that are a routine part of the game. (He has since opined that 100 percent of NFL players will suffer CTE to one extent or another.)
Like many another truth teller, Omalu was vilified, his credentials and reputation questioned. The FBI even showed up to make threats. This Nigerian immigrant had dared to challenge a great American institution, described by one character as so big it has its own day of the week (the same day that used to belong to God).
Yet another David-vs-Goliath scenario in an Oscar season filled with them (“Spotlight,” “Suffragette,” “Trumbo,” “The Big Short”), “Concussion” stands out not only for risking the wrath of the NFL (which continues to drag its feet in recognizing and addressing the CTE problem), but for Smith’s astounding performance.
In his 25-year acting career Smith has proven his proficiency in easygoing charm, sly comedy and action film flexing. Here he gives us more by delivering less.
It’s not so much a loud “Look at me!” as a simple, quiet “I am.”
His Omalu is a ridiculously over-educated fellow who cannot help name-dropping all the great institutions at which he has studied (no doubt as an African, an outsider, he feels the need to establish his bona fides at every opportunity).
A dedicated Christian, Omalu lives a monkish existence in an undecorated apartment. He’s obsessed with research and with his work in the medical examiner’s office in Pittsburgh. His thoroughness and unwillingness to cut corners irritate his more laissez-faire colleagues; so does his eccentric habit of talking sympathetically to the corpses on his table before bringing out the scalpel.
It’s an indelible portrait of an odd but exceedingly moral man. There’s not much flash here, but there is plenty of substance. Smith reaches depths only hinted at in his previous work.
In 2002 Omalu found himself looking at the body of Mike Webster, the one-time star center of the Pittsburgh Steelers who later played for the Kansas City Chiefs. The Hall of Famer had died at age 50 after years as a homeless derelict living out of his pickup truck. His last years were filled with paranoia and dementia. A mental and physical wreck, Webster had pulled some of his teeth and glued them back in.
Personally coughing up the cash for special testing of Webster’s brain tissue (the medical examiner’s budget was tight), Omalu found evidence of severe brain trauma. In the ensuing years other former players found their way to his autopsy table. The conclusion was inescapable.
The film belongs to Smith, but he gets some able support. Gugu Mbatha-Raw (“Belle”) plays Prema, another African transplant whom, at the request of their priest, Omalu took into his home. The two would eventually marry.
Backing Omalu in his battle with the establishment is Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), formerly the Steelers’ team physician who provides insight into the NFL bureaucracy, and Chief Medical Examiner Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), a canny old Pittsburgh pol who was targeted for a federal indictment because, one surmises, he backed Omalu’s brain trauma hypothesis. (All charges against Wecht were later dropped.)
Luke Wilson appears briefly as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. It is not a complimentary portrayal.
David Morse is devastating as Webster, portraying the once-vital man as the walking embodiment of human anguish. It was tremendously smart of filmmaker Landesman to let us see Webster’s suffering — so much more effective than just a corpse in the morgue.
Before it’s over “Concussion” has cemented a damning case for the dangers of the sport and the perfidy of its management.
Don’t see this movie if you want to continue your wholehearted enjoyment of football. Definitely do see it if you have a son who wants to play the game.
Read more of freelancer Robert W. Butler’s reviews at butlerscinemascene.com.
Rated PG-13. Time: 2:03.