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“Based on a True Story” seems to be the most revered words when making a Hollywood drama these days and while it very rarely amounts to full truth, it does at least establish a context for the story. In Concussion, that story is about Dr. Bennet Omalu (Smith), a Nigerian-born immigrant and forensic pathologist working in Pittsburgh, who discovers a brain disorder that comes to be called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a condition that occurs due to persistent head injuries and shaking. The issue is, he found it first in the body of Mike Webster (David Morse, in a startling powerful performance), one of the city’s most respected and honored hometown professional football players who retired as a hero but was found dead in a pickup truck, homeless. He had been under medical care for years, complaining of severe headaches, hallucinations and depression. He found relief by huffing turpentine, pulling out his teeth and using superglue to put them back in. His end was tragic.
A film believer in the American Dream, Omalu feels that his startling discovery will be embraced by the medical field and the National Football League, with the latter looking to refine their practice and protection to better preserve the safety of their players. Of course his mistake in that belief is forgetting that the NFL is a business, and very powerful one at that, and they are not quite on board with completely overhauling their entire franchise, which has become dependent on the “big hits” as a form of entertainment, the equivalent of the gladiator ring in centuries past.
Directed by Peter Landesman, the effectiveness of this film’s message is its greatest strength. No one watching will not be convinced that CTE is a real thing and should be addressed. One might even look at contact sports in an entirely new way, and this is exactly what the makers of this film are hoping (Sony pictures is even offering free tickets to NFL players to see the film). Smith is superb as Omalu and disappears into the role with conviction even if the script is a bit pious in presenting the doctor’s story, perhaps a conceit of the formula. Smith is patient, quiet, and concerning, but highly charged along the righteous path. Smith has always been good at drama, even if it’s hard to shake the charming, good humored action star he has embodied in his career. He finds just the right tone here and carries the story well. That might be helped because he is surrounded by others who deliver just as equally, especially Alec Baldwin, who plays a colleague and a former team doctor, and Albert Brooks playing Omalu’s boss and mentor, and the aforementioned Morse, who has made a career out of outstanding supporting roles. All the moments involving the research, diagnosis, and defense of CTE are compelling and feel authentic.
Where the credibility stumbles is in the depiction of Omalu’s personal life, which feels a little contrived and picture perfect, each piece coming off like a cog in a well-oiled machine. That’s not to say that Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who plays Prema Mutiso, Omalu’s wife, is not good. She is, but like much of her story and his personal life, should have stay on the sidelines and feels unnecessary (A scene where she thinks she is being followed is hopeless cliche and distracting). Yes, the formula requires our hero to be humanized, especially when that hero is dealing with medical practices and terminology, but Smith is convincing enough as a doctor to keep us interested. These breaks in the story are melodramatic and tend to romanticize and heavily dramatize what shouldn’t be, hoping to pull on heartstrings, which looks like a chase for awards rather than adding to the real message.
Concussion doesn’t mince words. The enemy in this story is clear: the NFL is bad. This is a one-sided story that paints the business leaders of the sport as villains, which is probably the right thing to do. The intricacies of the case are not as important as the David versus Goliath presentation. The fact that it took seven years for the NFL to acknowledge CTE and its link to concussions is proof enough that things were not always on a level playing field. The real Dr. Omalu deserves to have his story told, and while Concussion spins his biography into a mostly standard Hollywood tale, Smith and company raise it up and give the doctor due respect.
Director(s): Peter Landesman
Actor(s): Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Albert Brooks
Genre: Bio, Drama