As far as biopics go, Concussion is about as strange as can be without remotely deviating from the conventional "true story" template. It intends to examine its subject in great detail, but can't quite find a focus. It attempts to humanize its study of the long-term effects of brain trauma by following the good doctor who discovered the multiple concussion disease CTE, but can't make his actual journey particularly compelling. It wants to nail the NFL as the prime culprit in a cover-up of the devastating effects constant blows to the head can have on a veteran football player's brain, but it also tries to soften the blow while wrestling with its love for the sport.
At least the movie looks great, bolstered by very cinematic photography that really captures the chilly Pittsburgh locations, and has a fine cast that provides a decent dose of thespian credibility. Alec Baldwin seems to be everywhere nowadays, but it's okay because he's been in good form. Albert Brooks brings a warmth to his mentor role, David Morse convinces us that the symptoms of his rattled brain disease are horrifyingly nightmarish, and Will Smith puts his movie star charisma to impressive use playing someone who is far more quiet and subdued than most of the star's roles.
It's a shame, though, that Gugu Mbatha-Raw gets stuck with such a lame part, the steadfastly supportive partner to Smith's forensic pathologist Dr. Bennett Omalu. Mbatha-Raw has the only significant female role in the pic and while she does her best to imbue her character with an actual personality, the script only ever wants her to be someone who can love Bennett blandly and without any fuss.
The love story is barely developed, either, blossoming from nothing and seemingly existing more due to a perceived necessity than anything else. Still, the movie keeps updating us on their relationship and insisting it all matters. Except Omalu's story borders on generic when explored beyond his discovery of CTE. After he refuses to drop his crusade against the NFL, veiled threats appear, then amount to little.
Writer/director Peter Landesman wants to position this as a classic bout of one man versus the shady corporation, but Omalu's optimistic idealism does the story no favours. His goal is to get the NFL to recognize his research and perhaps make some changes to the game, but we all know that (a) this hasn't actually happened in reality and (b) it never will. Some of Omalu's peers question what the good doctor was expecting would happen and express some dismay at his naiveté, so at least there’s that.
Just because Omalu hopes for the best isn’t an issue on its own, but Concussion is dramatically handcuffed as a result. There’s hardly much of a point to make and not nearly enough leeway to squeeze out a bit of emotion from the story since it basically boils down to saying that playing a dangerous, violent sport like football can have dangerous and violent consequences. The discovery of CTE is a very specific extension of that, suggesting that the consequences are much worse and more terrifying than was previously believed, but good luck getting the NFL to admit that.
If Landesman really wanted to go full force at the National Football League, then his movie might have some considerable potential. It’s the soft approach that’s problematic here. The evil corporation is shown to be quite evil and of course they want to bury any research that claims their sport is making once successful men go mad and kill themselves, but there’s little impact attached to such statements when the maker of those statements is constantly doubling back and ensuring that their movie doesn’t come across as anti-football.
It’s hard to say how else Landesman could approach this subject, but cheesily intercutting between rowdy fans in a Pittsburgh bar cheering on the Steelers and showing a former player go into a rage right in front of his family before racing down the wrong side of a freeway is most certainly a weak way to go. There’s a clumsiness to Landesman’s attempt that, while somewhat understandable considering how much he’s trying to juggle, ultimately adds up to a sort of pointless experience.
For the most part, the movie focuses on Omalu and the three-act structure closely hinges on his arc. We go from how he discovered the disease to how he tried to get the word out about this and inform the NFL of the dangers to how he picked up the pieces after the NFL treated him like a jerk and jeopardized his career. Going this route allows Landesman to locate a happy ending (Omalu got great job offers, started a family, moved into a big house!) when the actual story of CTE provides no such rosy finish. But in order for this approach to work, we have to care about Omalu’s life outside of his work and the failed attempt at an onscreen romance makes the whole family angle a woefully underwhelming addition.
Landesman follows the biopic textbook so faithfully that Concussion’s oddities seem interesting by comparison to the familiar formula, but the overall strangeness reeks of failure. There are good pieces in play here, such as the efforts made to show us how horrific CTE symptoms must be to live with. Smith’s gentle demeanour marks a nice contrast to the images of on-field violence as well. It just seems that Landesman isn’t really sure what to do with this story even though he’s sure it’s a story worth telling.
But if all one can muster is that smashing your helmeted head against another man’s helmeted head several hundred times is bad for your health and that the multi-billion-dollar corporation that hosts such activities wants to sweep negativity under the rug, then it all feels like a little too much bark and no bite. Clearly, the NFL has had some bad press the past few years and it deserves condemnation from the media for the way it’s handled certain situations. There’s considerable motivation to go after the NFL in a big movie and there’s no reason that movie can’t also love the great sport of football, but Concussion feels like it merely wants to dip its toes into various aspects of the conversation without committing to any firm stance. That the movie also strives to be a basic biopic further weakens whatever argument it’s meekly selling. Concussion clearly has a lot on its mind, but its thoughts are a mess.