Just in time for college football bowl games and the NFL playoffs, Concussion tells the story of Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith), the Nigerian-born forensic pathologist who discovered and named chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the brains of several recently deceased NFL players.
Omalu’s discovery began with Pittsburg Steeler, Mike Webster (David Morse), who died in 2002 at the age of 50. Physically healthy, Webster suffered from brain damage due to repetitive concussions from playing football, a risk that most players, owners, and viewers suspect is a by-product of the game, but a truth not many are willing to acknowledge—depicted perfectly when Webster is brought into the corner’s office where Omalu is on duty. Omalu wants to investigate, but everyone else simply wants to shake their head at the shame of it all while giving Webster a hero’s burial.
As Omalu makes similar discoveries in other players who committed suicide, he begins to suspect that this is something far too common to ignore, ergo: the NFL must know more about CTE than they are letting on. Backed by his medical mentor (Albert Brooks) and a former NFL team doctor, (Alec Baldwin), Omalu takes the fight to the NFL in which promises to be a searing exposé of how the NFL knew about CTE, and did everything to cover it up less it hurt their product.
But, it seems like eleventh-hour dealings with the NFL put the breaks on that particular third act, and instead, Concussion takes an abrupt left turn into Omalu’s personal life, including a relationship with his wife, Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), also a Nigerian immigrant. Prema appears in scenes only with Omalu, making their relationship seem reverse-engineered to fill the time missing from the movie’s original ending. These scenes exploring Omalu’s dream of becoming an American, or what being an American exemplifies, but add little else to the engine of the movie, one that completely runs out of gas in the final twenty minutes. Characters accept the reality and seriousness of CTE but then waxing poetically about the Shakespearean nature of the game, a concession Omalu makes in a bizarre and speech to the NFL Players’ Association.
In the end, Concussion ends up a mess, with Omalu getting the standard bio-pic treatment. He may not get a standing ovation, but he is allowed his big speech, a new job offer, and plenty of characters reminding him that what he has done is a very important thing. An important discovery indeed, but an unimportant movie.
Written and Directed by: Peter Landesman
Based on the GQ article “Game Brain” by: Jeanne Marie Laskas
Produced by: Elizabeth Cantillon, Ridley Scott, Larry Shuman, David Wolthoff
Starring: Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Albert Brooks, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Morse
Sony Pictures, Rated PG-13, Running time 123 minutes, Opens December 25, 2015