Concussion is a sad, tragic story based on Dr. Benet Omalu’s discovery of a link between severe, sustained head trauma and the development of cognitive issues that often result in Alzheimer’s disease, and, at times, suicide. Omalu calls the phenomenon chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The rub is that NFL players, due to the contact focus of the game, are often the victims. The movie chronicles Omalu’s research and the difficulties he has in making his conclusions known to the NFL itself, which, it seems, is more interested in having players make money for them than in their well-being. In addition to The Big Short and Spotlight, Concussion is yet another 2015 film that encompasses real-life controversy and tragedy.
The film’s pacing is typical for this type of film. It establishes Omalu’s work in a Pittsburgh county morgue and illustrates how he gets involved in uncovering the reason seemingly successful and relatively young individuals are developing mental maladies and killing themselves. Omalu’s persistence and objectivity are admirable traits that are reflected throughout the film. He refuses to take any shortcuts or adopt any presuppositions, particularly regarding the first victim, despite pressure from his office supervisor. This insistence on discovering the root cause of the issue is what sets the rest of his discovery in motion.
The unprofessionalism in the county morgue is shocking. Omalu’s supervisor’s stress on quantity of subjects, not the quality at which they are processed is a sad but true reflection of the evolution of the medical industry. All too often, people focus on speed and numbers rather than quality. Luckily, Omalu stands up for himself and his methodical process. These character moments for Omalu and his insistence on professionalism and adherence to detail are the very catalysts that lead to his discovery of CTE.
Concussion’s story, sad as it is, is an important one to be told. At the beginning of the movie, a coach tells his players to grab their opponents’ throats and squeeze when tackling. This may be Hollywood exaggeration, but it would be truly terrifying if it actually happens on the practice fields. Not surprisingly, the film clearly paints the NFL in a negative light. It underscores the NFL’s tunnel-vision perspective of focusing on business and money at the cost of health and safety. Such a position will not sit well with viewers who are acolytes of the NFL; this element is similar to bankers and financiers probably not appreciating their depiction in The Big Short or Catholics’ views of Spotlight.
The story and pacing are functional for the most part, however, they are not without problems. Some of these issues may seem like nit-picking, but they stand out enough that they should be mentioned. First, it is weird for a boss (Dr. Wecht) to tell an employee that he or she should have a significant other. Wecht explicitly tells Omalu that he should have a girlfriend. This portion in the movie feels stilted and unreal.
Shortly after Omalu’s conversation with Wecht, Omalu’s reverend asks him if he could let a woman stay with him. This also feels like it was shoehorned into the story to introduce Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s character, Prema Mutiso. It would be strange for a church leader to ask a single male to let a single female stay with him (or vice-versa). Some scenes show Mutiso sleeping on the couch, even though Omalu made it clear she would have her own room. These incongruities, though minor, are noticeable and should have been ironed out, either during the script editing phases or as the scenes themselves were being shot. This may have, in fact, been the way Omalu and Mutiso were introduced in real life, but it does not feel organic from a movie prospective.
Before seeing Concussion, I thought that the story would focus on Omalu’s discovery of CTE and its impact on the NFL. Yet, it felt like the NFL was sidelined for most of the movie. Roger Goodell, the commissioner, only has a few fleeting moments of screen time. It would have been nice to see more of the “behind closed doors” discussions from the NFL’s prospective.
Similarly, I wish the movie would have had a few more macro-level moments. Perhaps the film had wrapped shooting before more details of additional CTE cases were discovered, but it would have been nice to see more examples than simply having the text provided at the end of the movie. The old Hollywood adage: “Don’t show me, tell me,” could have been put to better use. Yes, Spotlight featured the investigation in Boston, not the larger impact and repercussions, but Concussion’s conclusion and the way it illustrates CTE’s widespread nature could have been more compelling. Although the CTE revelations are dwarfed by the Catholic Church’s abuse, Concussion revelations fall flat.
There is one specific pacing problem that disrupts the flow of the narrative; that is the FBI’s presence. This content is strange and definitely feels forced and artificial in an attempt to provide an element of danger for Omalu and Mutiso. The FBI detains Wecht on various trumped up charges and we only discover that the charges were false by the film’s concluding text. What is more alarming is the scene in which Mutiso is being followed by a mysterious car. We never learn who is in the car, but it is implied that it is the FBI. This element is never addressed again in the movie, however. These few scenes are artificial, disjointed, and are poorly implemented. They should have been reworked with more context and explanation later in the movie or omitted completely.
Again, I want to emphasize that some of these events may have happened in the Omalu’s real story. However, Concussion is my only interaction with Omalu’s life and work and the film itself should not expect or require audiences to do additional work to gain the full context – the film should effectively and concisely convey those details independently to the audience.
Regarding the film’s acting, Will Smith delivers a great performance. Some have mocked his accent, but I thought he did a good job with it and with his overall portrayal of Dr. Benet Omalu. Albert Brooks’ performance as Dr. Cyril Wecht, the head of Omalu’s department and close friend, is also well acted and nicely supports Smith.
Sadly, Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Prema Mutiso lacks depth. This is not necessarily a critique of Mbatha-Raw’s acting, but the writing for Mutiso’s character. She feels like a typical cookie-cutter supporting character and love interest. Mutiso does provide Omalu with some needed support at home, but, by and large, Mutiso is not the character that comes to mind when thinking of Concussion’s secondary characters.
Alec Baldwin’s performance, however, simply feels like Alec Baldwin. I’m not saying he phoned it in, but it seems like more often than not, Alec Baldwin the actor is seen on screen, not the roles he is intended to portray. In the third act, his character does have a good emotional sequence with Omalu in which they discuss their briefing before the NFL’s leadership, but that is really the only highlight of his performance.
David Morse, Richard T. Jones, and Matthew Willig’s portrayals of former players afflicted with CTE are unnerving and fraught with distress because of the impact of CTE. The acting for these characters is executed to an effective, and jarring degree.
Luke Wilson’s Roger Goodell is hardly present. I had not realized that Goodell became the NFL’s commissioner shortly after Omalu’s discovery. The manner in which Concussion’s trailers were cut, framed Goodell as having a bigger role in the narrative; this was not the case. Goodell is on screen for less than five minutes. It would have been nice to see his response to Omalu’s discovery and to have his character nuances better realized.
In the end, Concussion is a decent but sad and depressing story. It tells of Omalu’s discovery of the dangers of continued head trauma, specifically from football, but it also is a cautionary tale to those currently involved in any sport. Parents will likely be particularly nervous and worried if their children currently play football. Unsettling as it is, the story is one that must be told and respect should be given to those involved to make this film a reality. Nevertheless, some of the pacing issues and other elements should have gone through additional editing and polishing. The film is pertinent to the current times and the United States’ obsession of football, but is unlikely to be viewed positively by major football fans; they will only be left with a sour taste in their mouths.
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Production:The Cantillon Company; LStar Capital; Scott Free Productions; The Shuman Company; Village Roadshow Pictures
Director: Peter Landesman
Producer: Amal Baggar; Elizabeth Cantillon; Ridley Scott; Larry Shuman; David Wolthoff
Screenwriter: Peter Landesman (screenplay); Jeanne Marie Laskas (GQ Article, “Game Brain”)
Director of Photography: Salvatore Tontino
Editor: William Goldenberg
Music: James Newton Howard
Orchestrator: Jeff Atmajian
Costume Designer: Dayna Pink
Casting Director: Lindsay Graham; Mary Vernieu
Production Designer: David Crank
Budget: ca. $35,000,000
Release Date: December 25, 2015 (USA)
Cinematographic Process: ARRIRAW; Digital Intermediate
Copyright Holder: Columbia Pictures Industries Inc.; LSC Film Corporation; Village Roadshow Films North America Inc. / Village Roadshow Films Limited
Cast: Will Smith; Alec Baldwin; Albert Brooks; Gugu Mbatha-Raw; David Morse; Arliss Howard; Mike O’Malley; Eddie Marsan; Hill Harper; Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje; Stephen Moyer; Richard T. Jones; Paul Reiser; Luke Wilson; Sara Lindsey; Matthew Willig; Bitsie Tulloch
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Rating: PG-13; Descriptors: Thematic material including some disturbing images, and language.
Running Time: 2 hours and 3 minutes (123 mins.)