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Concussion: Mad as Hell, But Without Much to Fear

A generic hero weighs down the brutal exposure of the most important sports story of the last decade.

Sony Pictures

Concussion isn’t angry enough for a polemic, and it isn’t interesting enough to be an uplifting Hollywood message movie, which means it’s just competent enough to fail on two separate, parallel fronts. There’s nothing offensive about Concussion, and if you know absolutely nothing about Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) or the NFL’s grotesque history of ignoring, then disputing the disease, you might find certain sections of the film informative, even revelatory. But the odds are you won’t even make it to that point, because while the facts of Concussion are powerful, the rest of the film is safe, rote and uninspired. Just when it begins to stoke our outrage, it cuts away to a paint-by-numbers story of One Man Fighting Against The System, and our eyelids start getting heavy. This is a Hollywood story that is absolutely not a Hollywood story.

We meet Dr. Bennet Omalu (a noble, earnest, and dull Will Smith), a Nigerian neurologist training to be a forensic pathologist in Pittsburgh, when the body of Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster, comes across his slab. Webster committed suicide after a long fall from grace and, Omalu—established here as someone who literally talks to his dead patients before he autopsies them—can’t figure out why such a healthy man would have “gone so mad.” Omalu cuts Webster open and discovers his brain has CTE, a disease so new and baffling that he actually gets to name it. Omalu then examines the brains of more dead football players, finds the disease again, and determines it is caused specifically by the collisions that come from playing football. When he attempts to present his findings, he learns that powers are aligned against him, that football, and the NFL, is too overwhelming a force to go down without a fight. He ends up teaming with his boss (Albert Brooks) and a former Steelers team doctor (Alec Baldwin) to try to inform people of the disease, and battle the NFL’s attempts to silence them.

I’m sure this sounds very exciting, and there are times when the movie gets cranking and builds up an admirable head of steam. It is shocking how ignored this massive medical breakthrough was by the League that could have made a difference; it’s rare to see such a blatant, obvious dereliction of duty in the public square, a sports league refusing to admit its game was dangerous, let alone try to make it safer. The film’s strongest moments are when it indicts us all, not just the League, in this moral compromise; our love for the game of football willfully blinding us to its inherent destructiveness. There’s a scene where Omalu watches ESPN’s infamous “Jacked Up!” segments, in which ESPN broadcasters openly cheered brain injuries, even going so far as to paint a target on the helmet of opposing players, and it’s among the most grotesque and powerful scenes in the film. (As our own Jamil Smith wrote in the most recent issue of the New Republic, football is a part of our American character, for good and, increasingly, for bad.)

The problem is that the movie edges right up to the corner on this stuff and then scampers back to Omalu’s personal narrative, which is decidedly less compelling. There’s a kernel of a story in Omalu’s love for America and his devout belief in its essential dedication to justice—he’s constantly dumbfounded that people won’t listen to him—but the movie scampers off again, clinging to its Traditional Movie Hero structure like an amulet. Thus, an inordinate amount of time is spent on Omalu’s romance, such as it is, with a fellow Nigerian woman who comes to America and lives in his home. We are also kept up to date on whether Omalu gets along with his co-workers, and whether he will overcome his personal fears and step up at the big climactic moment. It’s bizarre to see a movie that is ostensibly about the perils of sports hew so closely to a traditional sports narrative, there’s even a montage or two. The film is about a daring man, but it is anything but daring.

One wonders what, say, a mid-90s, loaded-and-ready-for-bear Oliver Stone would have done with a movie like this, or even a modern-day Steven Soderbergh. Director Peter Landesman is a former journalist and a bit of a muckraker, but he spends so much time telling a conventional narrative that you can’t help but wonder if the news of Sony Pictures, the distributor, being hesitant about the film didn’t get in his head a little. The film doesn’t pull many punches toward the NFL. Some scenes may have been cut, and it still keeps reeling back into a comfortable, bland structure. (Commissioner Roger Goodell is still played by Luke Wilson as the empty-headed corporate shill he is.) There’s a scene toward the end when Omalu’s wife is being followed by… someone, and the film’s attempts to conjure up a paranoid, The World Is Against Him vibe feel forced, almost laughable. That’s a scene that needs to sing in a movie like this, but the movie is never unhinged enough to feel particularly dangerous. The movie wants us to know the bad guys, but it never makes us that scared of them. You see the Silkwood headlights in the rearview mirror, but you don’t believe them.

There have been many comparisons between Concussion and The Insider, the lonely whistleblower out to save lives against the faceless power of a billion-dollar corporation. But that movie, as directed by Michael Mann, about Big Tobacco executives, gave you a nervy sense that if these people were okay with having millions of people die because they use their product, they were capable of anything. There was fear in the air. In Concussion, the bad guys are too fuzzy to get much of a handle on: They’re more ass-covering middle management than legitimate purveyors of malice. That may be somewhat true to life—it’s certainly true to Goodell’s life—but it makes an awfully limp villain. You need a filmmaker like Mann, or Stone, or Soderbergh, to engross us in the insanity of this world, not just tell a familiar story in the middle of it. Even though the film makes a strong case against the NFL, and against football as a sport, as a movie it still feels like a series of compromises, a downer of a story that keeps trying to convince us it is inspirational. The discovery of CTE and the NFL’s attempts to tamp down its importance is a massive story, perhaps the sports story of the last decade. But Concussion turns it into a just another obstacle for a generic good guy to overcome. There is something to be said for Concussion’s attempts to Trojan Horse its activism through a traditional Hollywood story—but we have to care about the horse.

Grade: C

Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for the New Republic. Follow them on Twitter @griersonleitch or visit their site Listen to their film podcast below.