A film review by Craig J. Koban January 14, 2016


2015, PG-13, 123 mins.


Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu  /  Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Prema Mutiso  /  Luke Wilson as Roger Goodell  /  Alec Baldwin as Dr. Julian Bailes  /  Bitsie Tulloch as Keana Strzelczyk  /  Stephen Moyer as Dr. Ron Hamilton  /  Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Dave Duerson  /  Eddie Marsan as Dr. Steven DeKosky  /  David Morse as Mike Webster  /  Albert Brooks as Dr. Cyril Wecht  /  Matthew Willig as Justin Strzelczyk  /  Richard T. Jones as Andre Waters  /  Hill Harper as Christopher Jones  /  Mike O'Malley as Daniel Sullivan

Directed by Peter Landesman  /  Written by Peter Landesman, based on the GQ article "Game Brain" by Jeanne Marie Laskas

It’s sort of amazing to consider that in our modern technologically advanced era that the human brain remains largely a mystery to medical science.  

Anyone doubting that assertion needs to consider the fact that properly diagnosing concussions – and treating them as severe injuries to the brain with potentially life altering consequences to those affected - is a relatively new phenomenon.  When it comes to the sporting world, concussion diagnosis was hopelessly in the dark ages until very recently, but the most damning thing regarding pro leagues like the NFL is that there has been a perpetual and sustained attitude of denial regarding how devastating sustaining such an injury can be.  

CONCUSSION is a new fact based sports medical drama – based on the 2009 GQ expose GAME BRAIN by Jeanne Marie Laskas – that deals with Nigerian born forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu that took it largely upon himself to go head-to-head with one of the most powerful sports organizations in the world in accusing them of suppressing facts regarding the horrendous effects that concussions have had on NFL football players.  The persistent and widely held theory in the league for decades was that getting your “bell rung” during a big hit was all part of the job, and something that could easily be dealt with and treated with some pain killers on the bench in-between plays.  In fact, what Omalu discovered – through his own tired and dedicated research, done mostly in his spare time and with his own financial banking – was CTE, or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a progressive degenerative disease of the brain that’s caused by ample brain injuries.  When retired NFL football players who suffered from concussions during their careers began mysteriously turning up in body bags at young ages – many of which were suicides – it sprung Omalu into action…especially when the NFL egregiously turned a blind eye. 



One of the league’s golden boys that died under such tragic circumstances was Mike Webster (played in the film by David Morse), once seen as one of the greatest stars in Steelers history.  As CONCUSSION opens we see this former gladiatorial titan of the turf reduced to an incoherent, perpetually paranoid, and disturbed man that has no idea what is happening to his concussed brain.  When Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) hears of this story it convinces him to perform an autopsy of Webster, mostly out of scientific curiosity as to why a former athlete died so early in life.  He gets the okay from his boss, Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), despite the fact that he has warned Bennet numerous times to hold back on his unorthodox pathology methods.  Nevertheless, Cyril likes and respects the kindly doctor, and gives in to his many request to engage in further research as to what has not only happened to Webster, but many other pro football players that begin turning up dead in his wake. 

Bennet makes progress during his arduous and long studies, during which time he discovers the aforementioned disease that’s tied to the concussion victims, which most likely led to their deaths.  This leads to the doctor publishing his findings in a medical journal, which obviously infuriates the upper brass of the NFL, making Bennet’s personal life a newfound living hell.  There is an immediate resistance to his findings from the league, and when the NFL digs deep into its considerable financial coiffures to discredit his work, Bennet realizes the severity of – as his boss puts it – “Going to war with a corporation that owns a day of the week.”  Years pass and the NFL continues their stance on denying Bennet’s findings, but he manages to find an ally in the form of a former Steelers team physician (Alec Baldwin) that believes in Bennet’s work and wants to make a last ditch attempt to get the medical world on their side to force the NFL to make changes for the better. 

Directed with a relatively assured and focused hand by Peter Landesman (PARKLAND), CONCUSSION is an utterly fascinating two hours, especially considering that the film is bogged down in a lot of medical jargon regarding meticulous brain research.  The film simmers to a boil in the manner that a good legal/detective thriller and underdog sports drama does, featuring an unshakeable and valiant minded hero going toe-to-toe in a David and Goliath battle with a seemingly insurmountable opponent because…it’s the right thing to do.  The film wisely understands that the actual research that Bennet conducted didn’t quickly culminate in easy answers.  What Bennet did took time, effort, and patience, made all the more difficult because he was trying to find causal similarities in multiple patients during a time when no one else was really attempting such research.  As a chronicle of a lone and noble-minded crusader going up against a corrupt organization in search of the truth, CONCUSSION is perpetually enthralling. 

Will Smith gives arguably his least, shall I say it, Will Smithy performance as Bennet, especially for how he curtails his usual larger-than-life on-screen charisma and cocky charm and instead subtly and plausibly inhabits the mind and body of a kind, soft spoken, modest, but intrinsically brilliant man that quietly, yet rigorously, wants to right a serious wrong.  Not only does he employ a credible Nigerian accent for the role, but he modulates his performance to reveal a compellingly multi-faceted immigrant that believes in the power of the American Dream, yet simultaneously hates how it has become perverted by organizations that lust for power and profits.   Smith has never been so quietly commanding in a film before, and he's matched impeccably well throughout with the great Albert Brooks, who has a tricky role of being a congenial mentor/boss figure to Bennet that still has to be the pragmatic voice of reason in his life.  The tandem of Smith and Brooks lends a substantial amount of class dignity to CONCUSSION. 

Here’s the problem with the film, though: As an anger-filled diatribe and rallying cry against the NFL's unspeakable levels of internal corruption, the film doesn’t feel like it’s going on the offensive against the league as much as it thinks it does.  There are times when CONCUSSION – despite its endlessly fascinating premise – feels like it contains a fairly routine and standard sports/medical drama structure and never really sways away from it.  There are definite times when the film appears like it’s really going in for the kill to mercilessly attack the NFL and the very uneasy essence of contact sports as a whole, but it instead rather hesitantly holds back.  Then there are some other subplots sandwiched into the larger story than never feel like significant entities, like the courtship and romance between Bennet and a fellow African immigrant (played well by Gugu Mbatha-Raw); it’s sweetly handled and the two stars have ample chemistry on screen, but it never really factors significantly into the larger arc of the story. 

Still, the powerful and prevailing themes of CONCUSSION are undeniably gripping and somewhat haunting.  The NFL, like big tobacco companies, have been engaging in misinformation campaigns about concussions and brain diseases for far too long, and at the very expense of ruining many past players and their families…and ones that have helped make the league profitable during their playing years.  The NFL’s attempts to protect profits over the very livelihoods of their stars is shameful, and CONCUSSION, despite its faults, is a fairly important film about a very important subject, anchored by a soulful performance by Will Smith that might be his on-screen work.  Any film that spurs debate about the safety of human lives in a sport that has executives that have so recklessly failed to engage in the debate is worthwhile in my books.  CONCUSSION may not have any specific answers, but it at least asks audiences members to look at the heart of a very dicey problem in an effort to shift public opinion towards the practices of the most popular sports league in North America.  

That makes this film gutsier than most. 

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