Its conventional construction certainly leaves it open to accusations of being little more than “Oscar bait”, but thanks to loaded subject matter and Will Smith’s best performance in years, Concussion is a satisfying, if pat, dramatic thriller.
In 2005, forensic pathologist Bennet Omalu (Smith) discovers that concussions in American football players can lead to a degenerate brain disease which he later names chronic traumatic encephalopathy, often having disastrous, even fatal consequences for the players and their families. As the bodies of former and current NFL players begin to pile up, Omalu attempts to publicise his findings while facing massive opposition from the NFL, their legion of fans and their army of lawyers.
The concussion debate in contact sports is red-hot right now, so it’s a terrific time to release a movie broaching this subject matter, and though writer-director Peter Landesman’s (Parkland) approach is at once workmanlike and occasionally heavy-handed, he does send home a compelling argument about the nature of Big Sports with appropriately, well, concussive force.
For anyone who has read much about the issue, it won’t say much new and in fact is probably most interesting to the layman who knows nothing, but even so, Smith’s compelling performance as a man desperate to save lives in a sport of questionable ethics keeps it chugging along even through the more familiar stretches.
Much was made pre-release of the movie’s apparent concessions to the NFL, that it downplayed their “villainous” investment-protecting role, though frankly, it’s hard to see much of that here; they’re shown to be predatory and aggressive throughout, unwilling to change the game that has won them a loyal body of fans (somewhat understandably, if callously).
Perhaps the most impressive achievement is that the film manages to criticise the NFL without taking aim at the sport itself, which is frequently described as beautifully poetic throughout, something the detached, borderline-robotic Omalu doesn’t much connect with. Smith nevertheless mines the evident humanity out of a man determined to do the right thing, even if Landesman regrettably forces through a pointless romantic subplot opposite the talented Gugu Mbatha-Raw, which though likely true to life, just doesn’t add much to the film at all and eats up a ton of screen time.
A more potent, dynamic and informative film on the subject was certainly possible, but it’s hard to argue with the movie’s visceral qualities, aided hugely by Smith, who encouragingly proves he still has plenty to offer outside of the big-budget arena.
Concussion is in US cinemas Christmas Day and UK cinemas February 12th