In 2002 Pittsburgh, accomplished Nigeria-born pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) uncovers the truth about brain damage in American football players who suffer repeated concussions in the course of normal play. (Based on a true story)
Review by Louise Keller:
The expose of brain damage risks to footballers is powerful stuff, but the film never flies, due to a messy screenplay that loses its focus and awkwardly interweaves an immigrant love story into the mix. Even the presence of charismatic Will Smith is not enough to overcome the film's structural flaws. As a Nigerian doctor determined to use science to prove the facts, Smith is impressive, sporting a subtle Nigerian accent and distinctive manner of speech that is convincing - most of the time. He is the film's greatest asset.
After a brief prologue involving star footballer Mike Webster (David Morse), the action begins in Pittsburgh in September 2002, introducing Dr Bennet Omalu (Smith), whose approach to his coroner role is unexpected. Bennet talks to his deceased patients, asking their help, claiming if he knows how they lived, he would have a better idea of why they died. By the time Webster ends up in the morgue on Bennet's watch, it is not surprising that the conscientious doctor is keen to discover why a man with no obvious brain deformities, is seriously disturbed.
It is a pity that the love story between Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Bennet is thrown away as a contrivance, because it could have been something far more effective. Everything about it is wrong - beginning with the circumstances of their meeting, when the local priest insists Bennet takes her home to stay with him, until she finds somewhere else to live. The scenes in which Prema turns on the television (when Bennet tells her he doesn't watch it) as he is trying to conduct his all-important research, play badly.
Director Peter Landesman's screenplay (based on a GQ article named Game Brain) struggles to build tension as Bennet sets out to prove that the human brain does not have inbuilt shock absorbers for the kind of brutal body contact that football demands. The subsequent war with the NFL, who immediately sees the expose as a threat to its multi-million dollar business should be devastating, but is clumsy. James Newton Howard's score is surprisingly bland. The film drags.
Thematically, there are parallels with the tobacco industry expose The Insider (Michael Mann's terrific film, 1999), but Concussion fails to make its point to do justice to the topic. It is a great pity, as Smith is well as Bennet, but even an A-list star needs a good script to make it work.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
It's one heck of a story, a dramatization of how the talented and determined Nigeria-born Pennsylvanian pathologist Dr Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) - with multiple degrees from respected US medical schools - discovered the medical explanation for how one adored football player gradually descended into his own personal hell - and died; that was despite no evident medical causes.
Mike Webster (played by David Morse) had suffered a steep mental decline, becoming violent, depressed and forgetful and pushed to increasingly desperate lengths to battle chronic pain.
Omalu had done hundreds of autopsies, but this one intrigued him, not by what he found but what he didn't find. He searched closer, dug deeper, and his microscope suddenly turned into a weapon. At least that's how the National Football League saw the results of his work - eventually - once he had climbed over several obstacles. Then they declared war on him. His findings - although not entirely surprising to the game's guardians - threatened a vast business empire. It wasn't just one player ....
It's a David and Goliath story, or perhaps better put as Dr David and Big Football Goliath ... but with the crunchy feel of contemporary greed and cynicism as extra fuel. (I happened to see this at a media preview the day news broke of FIFA President Sepp Blatter and UEFA boss Michel Platini being banned for 8 years from the sport of soccer on corruption charges. It underlines the importance of a film like this, exposing the venality and moral bankruptcy of some of the biggest sports organisations in the world.)
Will Smith, all decency and professionalism (not to mention god fearing), is credible and likeable, and he carries the film, despite an uneven and unnecessarily heavy accent (which slowly dissipates). Morse delivers a heartbreaking portrait of David Webster, the retired football hero caught in the throes of a medical hurricane inside his head, and the one who triggers Bennet's search for answers.
Albert Brooks as his superior Dr Ceryl Wercht and Alec Baldwin as the League's inhouse medical consultant Dr Julian Bailes, provide solid support, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw is a beautiful and powerful presence as Prema the new immigrant Kenyan nurse introduced to Bennet by his local church. It is here that the film makes its first stumble, presenting this development in such a way as to invite incredulity. The relationship blooms, and again, the film doesn't ring true.
Eddie Marsan has a small but crucial role as the respected medical scientist Dr Steven DeKosky, whose understanding of Omalu's discovery first leads to the publication of the research - and its explosive aftermath. This was when the condition was diagnosed and named as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
There are a few minor flaws, too, and a sense of trying to cover too much too quickly (it is a true and complex story, always challenging to turn into cinematic drama), which dilute the impact of the film, making it feel cursory in some aspects.
Still, I must admit, I am a sucker for cause films that champion right against might, but even allowing for that bias, I can recommend Concussion as engaging cinematic grit.
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CAST: Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Albert Brooks, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Luke Wilson, Bitsie Tulloch, Stephen Moyer, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Eddie Marsan, David Morse
DIRECTOR: Peter Landesman
SCRIPT: Peter Landesman GQ article 'Game Brain' by Jeanne Marie Laskas)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Salvatore Totino
EDITOR: William Goldenberg
MUSIC: James Newton Howard
PRODUCTION DESIGN: David Crank
RUNNING TIME: 123 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Roadshow
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: February 18, 2016