Like The Big Short, Concussion takes a serious, timely and important topic — in this case the discovery of the progressive degenerative brain disease debilitating professional football players — and builds a movie around it. Unlike The Big Short, which uses a variety of cinematic tricks to tell its story of the mortgage crisis, Concussion, based on Jeanne Marie Laskas’ GQ article “Brain Game,” follows a more straightforward, safe, typically Hollywood path. But the film doesn’t need artifice to get across its message on the dangers of concussions. If it doesn’t dramatically alter the way you view the game, you’re willfully refusing to pay attention.
Will Smith stars as Dr. Bennet Omalu, the forensic pathologist who discovers what will eventually be termed chronic traumatic encephalopathy after an autopsy of former Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster, whose life after football spiraled into homelessness and dementia (he was living in his truck by the end of his life). That Omalu works in Pittsburgh is a crucial point: The city lives for the sport and celebrates its hard-hitting history in a nonstop black and gold frenzy.
But Omalu can’t let go of what he saw in Webster’s autopsy. Then another Steeler, Justin Strzelczyk, is killed after a pattern of erratic behavior (he crashes his car into a tanker truck). More cases follow, and as Omalu continues his investigation and ultimately pinpoints the cause of CTE — the head-banging collisions that professional football and its fans demand — he grows more and more determined to publicize his findings. He’s eventually joined in his quest by Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), who worked with the Steelers and is weary of seeing terrible things happen to his friends.
Director/screenwriter Peter Landesman builds a solid dramatic story around this premise, and Smith delivers a terrific, award-worthy performance as Omalu, nailing his Nigerian accent, his intelligence, his determination to do what he knows is right. As his love interest, Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle) does her best with a role that seems to exist largely to put a female presence in the film. Still, women do have an important role in the future of this story: One NFL official points out that if even 10 percent of the women in America decided their sons shouldn’t play football, the sport is doomed. Would you let your kid play this violent game?
Concussion leaves some vital and intriguing avenues unexplored. Landesman does not let the NFL off the hook — the league and its commissioners come off as real villains who care only about the bottom line and not the lives that are being ruined. But Landesman never bothers to explore the economic and racial components of the game and who plays it, nor does he explore our own responsibility as fans. The NFL is a moneymaking monster, America’s game. What Concussion effectively asks us to consider is this: How many ruined lives will it take to make a change?
Cast: Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Albert Brooks, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Morse.
Director: Peter Landesman.
Screenwriter: Peter Landesman. Based on the GQ article “Game Brain” by Jeanne Marie Laskas.
A Columbia Pictures release. Running time: 123 minutes. Thematic material including some disturbing images, and language. Opens Dec. 25 at area theaters