Concussion isn’t Safe

Peter Landesman’s “Concussion,” the true story about one doctor’s discovery of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopothy) among athletes in the NFL, is a film to be admired, if not loved. Buoyed by understated performances from Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as his wife Prema, it’s a gripping narrative that’s been wrongly accused of playing it safe. By the time Bennet is threatened over the phone and a very-pregnant Prema is followed home by a stranger, it’s safe to say “Concussion” isn’t pulling any punches in its depiction of the public and corporate backlash Dr. Omalu endured. While Landesman’s portrayal of the NFL comes close to hagioclasm, at times reducing the organization to a hierarchy of malfeasance that will stop at nothing to cover up the truth, this malevolent interpretation is necessary in illuminating the stakes of Dr. Omalu’s predicament.

From staged news conferences and phony medical advice to enlisting the F.B.I. to investigate his superior and friend Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), the National Football League sought to undermine Dr. Omalu and his colleagues, discredit the existence of CTE, and downplay the prolificacy of concussions in America’s game. It would sound like a cockamamie conspiracy if it weren’t all true. Brooks lends his signature droll sense of humor to the role of Wecht, a man who backs up Bennet’s crusade every step of the way, even if he’s wary of the inevitable consequences. Despite a wonky southern accent, Alec Baldwin is especially effective as Dr. Julian Bailes, a former team doctor for the Steelers and an unlikely ally in helping Omalu combat these mounting obstacles. Smith gives his best performance in years as Omalu, a forensic pathologist at the Pittsburgh coroner’s office whose work is almost undone from the beginning when Steelers legend Mike Webster (David Morse) arrives in the lab. He’s Patient Zero, the first known death due to CTE, and Omalu’s co-worker nearly derails the whole autopsy on the misguided basis of respecting this local hero’s body. In fact, the most compelling elements here are the city’s and the country’s attacks on Omalu, not the NFL’s. Whether it’s an ominous caller ranting about the “pussification of America” or thinly veiled racism in response to the good doctor’s immigrant status, he’s attacked from all sides, making for a thematically complex potboiler.

Potboilers are fast-moving thrillers by definition, but Landesman moves things along a little too fast, utilizing overly kinetic cinematography and tired visual tricks to add immediacy to a story that’s already ripped from the headlines. Fake zooms, hokey freeze-frames, and CGI renditions of real-time concussions only serve to distract and potentially undercut the message these filmmakers want to convey. It’s not dissimilar from the sensationalist editing techniques used in reality television. They might be eye-grabbing to some, but they render everything less authentic in the process. It’s important that “Concussion” preaches to more than the choir, and while occasionally amateur direction gets in the way of that, Will Smith’s commanding presence and a true story that’s hard to deny ensure this film succeeds in doing so.

Grade: B

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