Concussion (2016)

There’s no questioning the timeliness or importance of Concussion and its powerful subject matter, but what should have been a rousing and provocative exposé, is instead a limp, lifeless, artless biopic/drama/thriller/love story that fumbles the football over and over again. As harsh as this sounds, this is little more than made-for-television storytelling, that just happens to have a talented, albeit wasted cast, who have all been horribly misrepresented by the staid writing and direction of Peter Landesman. Not even Will Smith’s natural charisma and likability can pervade this uninspired and derivative mess.

Smith plays Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist who was the man charged with the task of discovering what killed real-life football legend Mike Webster (a horrendously made-up David Morse). Unaware of the impact of his research, Omalu concludes that Webster died as a result of the long term effects of suffering repeated blows to his head. He names the disorder chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and publishes his work. That is, until the National Football League (NFL) crucify his research and dismiss him as an uneducated quack.

As a quasi-keen NFL enthusiast, I have had the opportunity to follow elements of this case and learn about the seriousness of his findings for more than a decade. American Football is a dangerous sport. There is absolutely a beauty and artistry in how the game is played, but it is a violent game nonetheless and the men who have taken their lives or are still suffering on-going trauma because of their time in the league, deserve to have their stories told.

But this film just doesn’t do any of them justice.

Untrusting of its vitally important core content, the film decides it must also be an immigrant love story. It is here where the film suffers the most, as Landesman shows little to no skill in writing believable, realistic dialogue, that isn’t completely cliché -ridden. Each attempt the film deviates from its medical exploration and begins to strive for intimacy, the inept script sabotages any momentum or connection that one might have with the film. It doesn’t help that Omalu’s love interest Prema Mutiso (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is given zero character development and nothing more than a handbag full of predictable, lazy inspirational quotes to “inspire” Omalu into action. In a film that already lacked female characters, it’s unacceptable to have your only female character be mistreated as nothing more than a vessel to humanise your leading man.

It doesn’t help, that the whole exercise looks and smells like pure Oscar bait for Will Smith. Smith tries as he might for an Awards’ nomination and his performance is rightfully understated, but it can also be accused of being fairly one-note too. To be fair, Omalu simply doesn’t make for an overly interesting central figure, and perhaps the best decision by the filmmakers earlier on, would have been to turn this subject matter into a documentary instead.

Adding to the disappointment is how heavily phoned-in and signposted James Newton Howard’s score is. Every single note and chord scream to the audience how they should be feeling right now, so much so, that it becomes insulting by its end. Speaking of which, the final scene may or may not also contain sad football ghosts in a crowd. Because, emotional manipulation.

Concussion is as subtle as a sledgehammer to your helmet. It is so neglectfully executed, poorly written and dramatically inept that I believe the NFL must greatly appreciate how dull and lifeless the film turned out to be.

“Tell the truth.” I agree, just make sure you also make a film worthy of our time.

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