There’s no debating that the subject matter of “Concussion” is incredibly important: the connection between football and life-threatening concussions. Any light directed toward this topic is important.
But writer-director Peter Landesman fumbles by structuring this story around Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith), the Pittsburgh pathologist who uncovers the truth about how the early death of former NFL players is connected to a lifetime of blows to the head.
His first evidence comes through an autopsy of Mike Webster (David Morse), who was the starting center for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1976 to 1986 and a Hall of Famer. Webster died in 2002 at age 50 after an extended period of mental problems and financial ruin that left him homeless and in deep pain.
Omalu finds in Webster, and several other NFL players who took their own lives, that concussions caused their deterioration. He calculates that Webster took 70,000 blows to the head during his football playing days. The doctor goes on a quest to get the NFL to recognize the problem and take steps to correct it.
Telling this story from the doctor’s point of view is like making a film about Robin Hood from the viewpoint of the person who makes his arrows. “Concussion” would have been far more interesting if told through the players who suffered and died because of playing football.
Because there’s not enough natural tension in the bureaucratic part of the story, Landesman resorts to some overly dramatic attempts to generate conflict. He tosses in strange noises in the night, suspicious cars parked outside the doctor’s apartment and a mysterious car tailing the doctor’s wife (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). None of these clichéd scenes adds any tension.
There would have been plenty of natural places to build drama if the players had been the focus. Morse is only on screen a short time, but he gives this tragedy a very real face. It is far more interesting to see how a person could go from the height of fandom to the depths of depression than it is to watch a doctor peering through a microscope at slides.
The initial examination uncovers four players who lost their lives to the results of playing football. The small glimpses shown of them are far more powerful than anything Smith does.
It’s not for a lack of trying, because Smith is excellent. He’s equally believable as a dedicated man of medicine and as a devoted husband. He just keeps butting his head into the limitations of the role. There is no way that a man being threatened with legal action comes close to being as powerful as a person being driven to suicide as a means of escaping his painful state.
“Concussion” ends up feeling more like a vanity project for Smith, as a way of garnering another Oscar nomination. That’s not unusual for actors of his stature. It’s just a shame when vanity trumps what is definitely an important story.
There’s also no direct line for the story to take. After Omalu discovers the problem, there are a series of events that play out – from publishing his results to a final meeting with the NFL. But, there’s no time context through most of the struggles and then a three-year leap before the real apex of the story hits.
Focusing on the doctor means the story has a slow burn. Had the focus been the players, the problem would have been trying to deal with the emotional turmoil. The biggest problem with “Concussion” is that it takes the less-interesting approach to a fascinating subject.