Mark Reviews Movies

Concussion (2015)


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Peter Landesman

Cast: Will Smith, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Albert Brooks, David Morse, Arliss Howard, Mike O'Malley, Eddie Marsan, Hill Harper, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Bitsie Tulloch, Matthew Willig, Stephen Moyer, Richard T. Jones, Paul Reiser, Luke Wilson

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material including some disturbing images, and language)

Running Time: 2:03

Release Date: 12/25/15

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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 24, 2015

For a movie that champions the decisiveness of scientific discovery, Concussion is rather indecisive in its focus, its objectives, and its central argument. The movie presents a strong case for dramatic changes in the way the general public looks at contact sports, especially football, and to the way the institutions in charge of those sports conduct their play. In between the lines, though, there's a sense that the movie is apologizing for what it only comes close to saying.

It's as safe and diplomatic a treatment as a dramatization of this subject could be. It's willing to name names. It's willing to call out dangerous ignorance about or intentional concealment of the apparently widespread problem of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is exclusive to athletes whose participation in certain sports results in repeated brain trauma. The movie's willingness only goes so far, though.

It highlights the discovery of the disease and the life of its discoverer, which makes the movie's narrative conveniently passive in regards to its criticisms and detached from determining any solutions to the problem. Imagine a version of the story of David and Goliath in which David gives the giant a mild scolding and then walks away with a sense of satisfaction on a job well done. That's the territory we're in here.

The movie does at least have a sense of responsibility in showing the devastating effects of CTE. It opens with highlights from the career of Mike Webster (David Morse), who played professional football in the position of center for 16 years, earning a place in the hall of fame. In 2002, at the age of 50, he is living in his pickup truck and suffering from symptoms of dementia, as well as severe pain. Unrecognizable and mostly forgotten, he dies homeless and alone.

There are depictions of other former players here, too—all far too young to have the deteriorative brain ailments that their behavior would suggest. One former player has a violent outburst in front of his wife and children before dying in a fiery car crash. At least two men commit suicide when the pain becomes too unbearable. All of them die with family members, friends, and doctors who are unable to comprehend the changes that these men have undergone—helpless to do anything about their path toward self-destruction.

Enter Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith), a Nigerian immigrant to the United States who works for a county coroner's office in Pittsburgh. He is on duty when Webster's body is brought to the morgue, and despite the protests of a colleague, who does not want the body of a local legend desecrated, Bennet performs an autopsy and sends some brain tissue for analysis with his own money. After receiving the results of these tests, he co-writes an article for a prestigious medical journal. The National Football League starts a campaign against the report and Bennet.

The screenplay by director Peter Landesman (based on a magazine article by Jeanne Marie Laskas) shifts between the research and Bennet's personal life, mainly the budding romance between him and Prema Mutiso (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a Kenyan immigrant who starts living in Bennet's sparse apartment while she finds her footing in America. There comes a point at which it seems as if the movie has shifted gears entirely, as Bennet and Prema share awkward silences, go out dancing, and eventually marry and build a home together. There may be a serious, deadly disease that is destroying lives and becoming an epidemic among professional athletes (if it isn't one already). The urgency of that subject, which the movie does a fine job establishing with in its earlier scenes of the football players' physical and mental deterioration, is lost as the Landesman offers the generic beats of biographical narrative.

When the movie does return to the important matters, it does so with over-simplification. Bennet becomes a pariah, receiving threatening phone calls from anonymous people who are upset about his discovery and seeing conspiracies to intimidate him. The movie, of course, does not want to come right out and say that the NFL was behind any of this, although the suggestion is that the organization was aware of the potential problem of repeated brain traumas and did nothing about it. Bennet's allies are Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), a retired team doctor who feels guilty about putting his patients back out on the field but not guilty enough to stop loving the game, and Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), the county coroner who encourages Bennet to fight a system that owns a day of the week that once belonged to churches.

Landesman leaves many big, open questions. There are specific ones, such as whether or not the NFL conspired to keep this under wraps and harmed its players in the process, and there are equally important but more philosophical ones, such as what responsibility the league has to its players now that the issue has come to light. The movie is content with simply raising these questions, leaving it to someone else to do the actual heavy lifting of determining some kind of solution. Concussion possesses neither courage nor conviction.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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