I hate it when I can’t tell what a movie’s really about. If they are planned to confound me, like Eraserhead (1977), I am more than willing to be swept along for the ride. But when a movie cuts for itself a pathway it wants the world to understand, then circumvents it by throwing a whole bunch of Wipeout obstacles in the way, I am not left willing; I am left hammering the obstacles into submission. This is the general feeling Concussion left me with, because I thought it was about a doctor’s discovery of the link between American football and brain trauma, but it throws in so many subplots as to overflow. And it doesn’t help that writer/director Peter Landesman handles his story as if it were made of crystal.
There’s a lot I did enjoy about this movie, and I wish it had given me more of them. I don’t need to see a romance blossom, nor do I need to be coaxed into believing the good doctor is a saint and the NFL is the devil wearing a helmet. Just settle down, choose your words carefully, and explain what needs to be explained. Show what must be shown to get your message across without pasting labels on your characters’ foreheads. I ended up liking Dr. Omalu, because he’s just such a great guy. He’s a conduit for integrity and goodwill, and Will Smith is kind of flexible in the role. But do I feel I know more about him as a person? I could have read his Wikipedia page and come away with more insight.
Concussion tells us that Omalu is a well-respected, unorthodox surgeon at the Allegheny County coroner’s office in Pennsylvania (he talks to his corpses, like a character out of CSI: Miami). He goes to church, sings hymns, and is so holy the priest doesn’t think twice about thrusting a new immigrant, Prema Mutiso (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), into his care, almost as if the world — and God — is conspiring to get him hitched (his supervisor at the coroner’s office, played coolly by Albert Brooks, offers him this sound advice: Find a girl).
Prema moves in and does what all stay-ins do — she makes a nuisance of herself by shaking up the rules of the household. Omalu doesn’t watch TV. Prema loves her Wheel of Fortune. He doesn’t eat breakfast. Prema cooks breakfast for him and ensures it’s the healthiest meal of the day. He sees her as a pest, albeit one he could marry. She sees him as a successful, noble African immigrant. What are the odds, then, that they will fall in love and forever be entangled in each other’s accents? Wait for the obligatory dancing scene to find out.
All this stuff is important to the story of Dr. Bennet Omalu’s life, but this movie could’ve done away with all of it. It shines brightest when it’s about Omalu’s work and research, and how he watches recorded footage of NFL games with equal amounts of horror and admiration. He admits at one point that the game is barbaric and dangerous, but it thrills because it’s so graceful and beautiful. He has a point — the game is fantastic. But what the world fails to confess is that when all the excitement and extreme fanaticism is extricated, it is just a game, and not one worth dying for.
The heart of Concussion beats with Omalu’s stoic integrity, but it also suggests that he’s so righteous because he possesses a disconnect from the world of American football, and is not himself an American. It’s both a blessing and a curse, I suppose — on the one hand, he is treated in some circles as an outcast; on the other, he is able to see the sport as just a sport, and one that kills off its players before the hands of death are meant to take them.
His first subject is Hall of Famer Mike Webster (David Morse), who died in his truck from a heart attack after presumably shocking himself with a taser and super-gluing his fallen teeth back into place. He went insane at age 50. No sign of dementia. No visible oddities in the brain. He was as physically healthy as, well, a football player.
Omalu scratches his head. Then another footballer dies under mysterious circumstances. Then another. Surely the NFL cannot deny this phenomenon. But it does, and is quite snarky about it. So the lines are drawn. Omalu on one side, the NFL on the other. It’s no secret who’d win. But you see, this is all fairly routine, especially for a sports biopic. Omalu is as gentle as the screenplay that feeds him, and the NFL is as nasty as Hannibal Lecter. I recall the fabulous Moneyball (2011), which was a sports biopic in a way, but was so innovative, so intelligent and so thrilling as a numbers game that when placed beside Concussion, it walks away with the touchdown. Or the home run. Take your pick.