Concussion: Brain Drain, by David Bax
The movie that Peter Landesman’s Concussion strives to be – and only fleetingly grabs hold of before immediately losing on one or two occasions across its bloated runtime – is a movie we need. The NFL’s willful, insidious negligence toward the issue of head trauma and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) deserves a work of galvanizing agitprop to rally the unconverted and the ignorant. The problem is that Landesman doesn’t seem nearly as concerned with making an issue-driven film as he does with throwing together a hollow retread of a thousand other platitudinous “great man” biopics. The material for a good movie is in here but Concussion keeps getting in its own way.
Based on a 2009 GQ article by Jeanne Marie Laskas, Concussion focuses on a pathologist named Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith), whose professional curiosity following the early mental decline and death of former Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster (David Morse) led to the discovery of CTE. A Nigerian man with little knowledge of or interest in the game of football, Omalu was first shocked and then indignant at the NFL’s response, which was to stifle and obfuscate his findings and discredit him as a scientist.
That outline offers the makings of a corporate thriller in the tradition of The Insider and Concussion is at its best when it steers in that direction. The cold color palette and the hushed interiors where intransigence turns to menace recall Michael Mann’s film, though only in superficial ways.
Landesman bafflingly insists on tipping the scales away from the natural intrigue of the film’s procedural ingredients and toward the dull and sappy inspirational speeches that crop up like spring-loaded weeds every time Omalu feels a hint of doubt. It begins to feel like he spends more time being told to soldier on by loved ones and colleagues than he does facing any actual obstacles. It’s difficult for these stern or weepy bromides to take root when they come from characters whom it is impossible to believe continue to draw breath when not in Omalu’s presence. Every interpersonal relationship he has – the turgid romance with a fellow African immigrant (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the mentor/protégé dynamic with the coroner (Albert Brooks), the alliance with a former Steelers team doctor (Alec Baldwin) – only exist as buttresses for Omalu’s quest.
Even with such an impressive cast, which also includes Eddie Marsan, Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje, Mike O’Malley, Paul Reiser (in a nothing role that must have been bigger in the screenplay) and more, Landesman’s dialogue is impossible to overcome. Mbatha-Raw has proven her talents in films like Beyond the Lights and Belle but not even she can sell a groaner like “I don’t know if you’re more scared of what you will find… or what you won’t.” And Brooks is hard to even find under the unnecessary layers of pancake makeup.
So we’ll have to keep waiting for the movie Concussion could have been. Or perhaps change will come as the result of a multitude of smaller things, like Laskas’ original article and Steve James’ underseen 2012 documentary, Head Games, in much the same way the accumulation of minor blows over a career ruined the welfare and livelihood of so many athletes.