It’s been a bad few years for the NFL. The organization has been overrun with scandals, both professional and personal. Tom Brady had “Deflategate”, Ray Rice was taped beating a woman, Jonathan Dwyer allegedly attacked his wife and 18-month-old child, Daryl Washington was charged with substance abuse and assault, the list goes on. What’s more, the NFL has done such a notoriously poor job of handling these problems that Commissioner Roger Goodell doesn’t need any more help looking like a villain.
Yet here we are with Concussion, a biopic about Dr. Bennet Omalu, here immortalized by Will Smith. Omalu is the doctor who miraculously discovered that repetitive head trauma might lead to brain damage (What a shock, huh?). We now had conclusive proof that the helmets and safety equipment worn by NFL players was not sufficient to keep them safe in the long term. It was a huge scandal that has changed the game and its public image in some very prominent ways since Omalu’s discovery way back in… um, 2002. And the movie itself is based on a GQ article that spread awareness of the problem in 2009.
I’m sorry, why did we need this movie, again?
This film is the sophomore effort of writer/director Peter Landesman, whose previous directorial work was the JFK assassination pic, Parkland. Landesman also wrote last year’s Kill the Messenger, about a journalist who was forced into ruin after investigating the CIA’s role in secretly funding the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. His next effort is reportedly Felt, a biopic about Mark Felt alias “Deep Throat” and his role as an informant in the Watergate scandal. I should also point out that Landesman comes from a journalistic background, having written many columns for the New York Times, the Atlantic Monthly, the New Yorker, and others. One of his articles was the basis for Trade, a movie about sex trafficking in the United States.
It should be immediately obvious from all of this that subtlety is not Landesman’s strong point. This is the background of a man who is far more interested in making political statements than in telling stories. And it shows in the end result of Concussion.
I appreciate the attention that Landesman gives to the various themes at play here. We’ve got America’s love for violence, our innate spiritual need for champions, and of course the evils of corporate greed, and that’s just for starters. Mortality and the value of life are both explored, as you might expect from a story about otherwise healthy young men suddenly going insane and committing suicide.
And let’s not forget our main character, a devout Christian who immigrated here from Nigeria. Religion, faith, and forgiveness are all brought up, and of course race is an issue as well. There are so many NFL fans and officials who try to write Dr. Omalu off as a quack (even though I could spend all night listing off his degrees and accomplishments) because he’s a black man off the boat from Nigeria. Sadly, the movie never thinks to raise the hypocrisy of the NFL and it’s supporters, brushing off a black man as inferior when so much of the league was built on holding up so many African-Americans as heroes. Seems that black men can beat the crap out of each other, but they can’t be brain surgeons. Huh.
And then of course we have our characters. I was so afraid that this main character was just going to be Will Smith talking in a funny voice, but damned if he doesn’t sell himself as Dr. Omalu. I never would have thought that Will Smith — one of the biggest, most recognizable, most ambitious stars in the world — could so effectively have played this naive man who just wants to solve problems, do the right thing, and hide from the rest of the world behind his work. Dr. Omalu is clearly shown as a man more comfortable with the dead than with the living, to the point where he talks with corpses and treats them as his patients. It’s more than a little annoying how the movie lionizes Omalu, but Smith just makes it so damn fascinating to watch.
Alec Baldwin is another highlight, here playing Dr. Julian Bailes, formerly a doctor employed by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Here’s a guy who knows firsthand that the NFL did a whole lot of shady shit to keep their players in the game, and now he’s forced to go against all of his old friends and colleagues as retired players keep dying and the truth is starting to get out. It’s such a potentially fascinating quandary to be in that I almost wish he had been our main character. At the very least, the film maybe should’ve gone into greater detail about how blowback from the NFL might have affected him.
Albert Brooks plays an effectively useless character, but he at least provides a bit of dry comic relief and he acts as a fine mentor for Omalu. Likewise, Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays a love interest with virtually zero agency or effect on the plot. After previously seeing Mbatha-Raw in Belle and Jupiter Ascending, I am so sick and fucking tired of seeing her so thoroughly wasted on these godawful roles. I wish that somewhere out there in Hollywood, someone would give a worthy part to this charming, gorgeous, talented woman with so much screen presence.
Then we have our retired Pittsburgh Steelers to help put a face on this crisis. The highlights are Mike Webster (David Morse), Justin Strzelczyk (Matthew Willig), and Andre Waters (Richard T. Jones). All of them turn in heartbreaking work, often with only one or two scenes apiece. We’ve also got Dave Duerson (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a former football player who’s been recently elevated to a management position, forced to live in denial of the whole situation because it’s easier than facing the reality that he might succumb to his neurological trauma next.
(Side note: Fellow Portlander Bitsie Tulloch gets to poke her head in as Strzelczyk’s widow. She’s mostly there to turn on the waterworks and to put a face on the grieving families left behind by the players who died too soon.)
But then we have our antagonists. Who’s playing Roger Goodell? Luke Wilson. Seriously. That’s who the filmmakers went with. Easily the most bland, milquetoast, whitebread, unremarkable face in show business; the living embodiment of mediocrity (to the point where that was literally his role in Idiocracy); and he’s playing the commissioner of the NFL. Even better, there’s a doctor under the employ of the NFL, and he’s played by Paul Reiser. Yeah. Because nothing says “This guy’s an immoral douchebag who sold his soul for money!” like casting the guy who played Carter fucking Burke.
You’re starting to see what I mean about the lack of subtlety, right?
What makes it even worse is the filmmakers’ obsession with close-up shots. At least every other shot in this movie is an either a close-up or an extreme close-up. I’ll grant that it gives me a much greater appreciation for the cast when their faces take up the entire screen through practically the whole running time. But again, it speaks to how the filmmakers have thrown all subtlety clear out the window. We’re forced to see certain characters as underdog heroes and others as scumbag villains because the filmmakers quite literally put it right up in our faces. It’s annoying, it looks awful, it makes the film and its morals seem laughably simplistic, and no one comes out looking good except the actors.
The film so desperately wants to be a suspense thriller in which the underdog has to be paranoid while looking out for threats from the giant he’s going to war with. But there are so many reasons why that doesn’t work. To start with, this whole story took place less than 15 years ago. Just last April, a federal judge approved the settlement deal in a class-action lawsuit between the NFL and thousands of former players who suffered from CTE. This isn’t some arcane bit of news trivia that happened a long time ago, this is stuff that’s still playing out in our newspapers. It’s not easy to have a suspense thriller about real-life events when anyone who reads the news could tell you exactly what’s going to happen and where it’s going to lead.
Another huge reason is precisely because the film has such a polarized morality. There’s never the least bit of doubt as to who’s wrong or who’s right, and we’re never given the slightest reason to think that our perfect main character might slip up and make some potentially fatal mistake.
Moreover, while the NFL is quite thoroughly established as an American institution overflowing with money and power and popularity, they never come off as a serious danger. Aside from a couple of death threats from angry fans (that lead nowhere) and a visit from a few crooked FBI officials (quickly and neatly resolved without incident), the NFL and its supporters come off looking like petty assholes. The film would have me believe that Omalu is going against people who could kill him and make it look like an accident, or at least make sure that nobody ever found a corpse. Sorry, but I’m just not buying it.
Instead, the film has to wring suspense and drama out of the most cliched and ridiculous places. There’s a coworker (Mike O’Malley) who has to contradict everything Omalu says and does just because he’s a two-dimensional jerk. There’s the corporate doctor (Arliss Howard) who rattles off boilerplate talking points just so Omalu can contradict him and look like a saint. We get a couple scenes of Omalu and his wife acting paranoid, and nothing ever, EVER comes of it.
But by far the greatest example comes early in the third act, when Omalu and his wife go through a complicated and very traumatic pregnancy. I have to assume that this really happened, because if this is what the filmmakers came up with for the sake of artistic liberty, they can all go fuck themselves with a garden rake. But even if this really did happen, the event is timed and placed in such a way that the filmmakers seem to imply that the complications happened because of the stress put onto Omalu and his wife because everyone’s after them. It’s a flimsy, pathetic, embarrassing attempt at raising the stakes of this conflict and giving this film the bogeyman it so desperately needs. And of course, it doesn’t help that Omalu’s entire romance arc with his wife is pathetically flat and predictable.
Concussion is proof that Peter Landesman should either go back to journalism or take up documentary filmmaking. The film is sharply focused on giving us new reasons to hate the NFL and to take our kids out of football until safety measures improve, and all of that pontificating comes at the expense of tension, suspense, or anything resembling a good story. The cast is solid — especially the trio of Smith, Baldwin, and Brooks — and there are so many interesting themes to explore. But it all comes apart under the direction of someone who never fails to take the most boring, most predictable, most cliched, least creative, safest option possible in crafting the story, all to make his greater sociopolitical point that much clearer.
This might be worth a rental or a second-run, especially in the unlikely event that it actually gets some awards buzz. But there are so many better movies out right now that you could and should be watching instead.