TELL THE TRUTH
It’s fair to say that Will Smith has had an interesting career. The now 47-year-old bankable star started out in humble roots as a rapper under the name “The Fresh Prince”. His fame grew in 1990 when he starred as the lead character in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, a television show that ran for six seasons (1990-1996). From there, Smith entered the foray of Hollywood films as a leading man, including Bad Boys (I and II), Independence Day, Men in Black, Enemy of the State, Ali, I am Legend, and The Pursuit of Happyness. Though talented with a mostly successful film career as an actor, Smith is marred by flopped endeavors, including the movies Wild Wild West and After Earth (both films were panned by critics and moviegoers). Now Will Smith returns to the big screen for his second movie of 2015 (the first being Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s Focus) with the film Concussion. Does this biopic drama give insightful insight into the pro-football “concussion” controversy or is it a forgetful movie with a likeable leading man?
Born and raised in Nigeria, Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) has come to America to further his education and skills as a forensic pathologist, working in a Pittsburgh coroner’s office under Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks). While his respectful ways and methods of the dead bodies are seeing as “unusual”, Bennet remains steadfast and dedicated to the cause, with his curiosity elevated when exacting an autopsy from recently deceased football legend Mike Webster (David Morse). Bennett expands his detailed search into how Webster died, discovering a degenerative disease that’s tied to brain trauma and the connection to the violence of professional football. Bennett eventually publishes his findings in a medical journal, critiquing on what he calls CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). While his findings are accurate, Bennet swiftly encounters harsh resistance from the NFL, using their well-funded organization to shut down Bennett’s claim, while the good doctor finds an ally in Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), a former Pittsburgh Steelers team physician who believes in the CTE discovery.
THE GOOD / THE BAD
If you didn’t know (which is okay if you don’t because I didn’t know either), Concussion is based off of a 2009 GQ magazine exposé titled “Game Brain” by Jeanne Marie Laskas, detailing Dr. Bennet Omalu’s research of the chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and his uphill ordeal with the NFL. Following the deaths of high profile NFL stars Junior Seau and Dave Duerson (both of whom committed suicide after suffering from CTE), director Ridley Scott was initially interested in a NFL concussion film, but it was writer / director Peter Landesman who brought Omalu’s story from page to screen with the movie Concussion (Ridley Scott went on to produce the movie). With his directorial debut with the film Parkland, Concussion is Landesman’s sophomore filmmaking endeavor, allowing the director to tell the chronological story of Omalu’s findings and depicting the NFL reluctant and harsh responses to the doctor’s claims as well as enlightening (and perhaps educating) moviegoers with the understanding of behind CTE and its damaging effects.
In that regard, Landesman succeeds with his vision undertaking of Concussion. The narrative story in the movie is ever so important, especially since it resonate so much with current events and effects the lives of hundreds of people. From a personal standpoint, I’ve met (and know) some former NFL football player, who have been mental affected by their repetitive head traumas over the years of playing the game of football. It’s a sad truth, one that relatable to many and shares now precedent safety concern for not just football players, but for all athletes (both professional and amateur). Concussion gives that voice its platform to spread its message as Landesman delivers that very same message with insightful carry throughout the feature. As Smith Omalu’s says in the movie “We should honor our warriors” and I couldn’t agree more.
However, as poignant and thoughtful the subject matter is, Concussion isn’t the quintessential biopic film that it wants to be. Sure, the story is touching and Will Smith’s talents are well used (more on that below), but the movie follows the standard troupes found in theatrical films of “based on a true story”, with familiar beats of plot and character motivations. Landesman even creates a straightforward (or rather a black and white) representation of its main plot, dressing up Omalu as a humble and self/less champion of scientific truth that’s going up against the NFL organization, which is depicted as the big and powerful evil corporation. It’s a classic trap in this endeavor, one that’s commonplace in movies such as this, and yet affects Concussion in its cinematic undertaking. Additionally, it seems that Landesman has a hard time of balancing the main story with its sub-plots, most notably in Dr. Omalu’s personal life. Scenes with his romantic relationship with Prema Mutiso seem to distract and personally lose focus on the movie. In short, when Concussion is strongest when its presented with the CTE storyline debate and becomes less-interesting with it moves away from that same subject.
With the character of Dr. Bennet Omalu being the central protagonist in Concussion, most of the driven force comes from Will Smith portrayal of the real-life doctor. And he does a terrific job at it. It’s definitely a quality performance and Smith can certainly bring it out through his acting ability, expressing Omalu’s triumphs and struggles in his on-screen persona and mannerisms. It may not be a complete and game-changing performances like in his role for the movie The Pursuit of Happyness, but Smith does an effective and solid work on pulling back the curtain (a theatrically one) on Dr. Omalu research and his trials and tribulations that follow from his findings.
In more secondary roles are Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Prema Mutiso, and Albert Brooks as Dr. Cyril H. Wecht. Both roles are best defined as the commonplace / standard outlines of biopic drama to the main character as a supportive (but overall weak) love interest and a nonsense mentor (Brooks’s Wecht does have some best humorous lines in the movie. Along those same lines, but with more screen time to devoted to him, is Alec Baldwin’s Dr. Julian Bailes, a retired NFL team doctor that is sympathetic to Dr. Omalu’s CTE finding and his cause to expose the truth.
The rest of Concussion’s cast is one comprised of a handful of scenes (two or three scenes at the most) of characters brought to life by actors would have a resemblance to their real-life counterparts. This includes Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Dave Duerson, Matt Willig as Justin Strzelczyk, David Morse as Mike Webster, and Richard T. Jones as Andre Waters, as well as Eddie Marsan as Dr. Steven DeKosky and Luke Wilson as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell (who gets Goodell’s diction down pat, but doesn’t even look like him). Other notably minor actors in Concussion are Stephen Moyer as Dr. Ron Hamilton and Mike O’Malley as Daniel Sullivan. All of these characters play their roles in Omalu’s story and do their respective parts well (especially those portraying former football players) in detailing the world and politics of Concussion. Although, these characters are, more or less, structural cogs in the film’s narrative machine.
Is Concussion a hard-hitting, eye-opening feature film? No, but it’s definitely poignant and relative to today’s world. Peter Landesman’s biopic hits it intended mark, allowing viewers to explore the principal story of Dr. Omalu’s research into C.T.E. and the NFL’s ramifications into his finds. However, the movie (as a whole) doesn’t elevate itself beyond the standard “base on true story” endeavor with classic triumphs and resistances setbacks playing out in the usual fashion as well as a couple of side stories that don’t completely pan out. Fans of Smith, of football, and those curious about the findings of CTE should definitely go see this movie. In the end, I personally think that Concussion isn’t the best true life biopic movie out there, but its tale it wants to tell is indeed palpable with a quality performance from Will Smith and its insightful subject matter as a silver-lining overlay to the overall movie.
3.8 out of 5 (Recommended)
Reviewed on December 27th, 2015
Concussion is rated PG-13 for thematic material including some disturbing images, and language