It goes without saying that football is a sport that potentially endangers its player’s week in and week out with their bodies constantly put at risk due to the intense contact required for the game to be played. Of course, the money involved in all aspects surrounding the game means everyone involved will do whatever they can to assure its progress so, naturally, the notion that major head trauma stemmed from constant impact like that experienced in football could ultimately kill a player caused its share of controversy. In 2002 Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic neuropathologist, uncovered a serious condition that was linked to the unusual deaths of former players – chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
Omalu’s efforts to study and publicise CTE in the face of NFL opposition were eventually documented in a GQ article in 2009, which lead to an expansion from writer Jeanne Marie Laskas with the book Concussion. Adapted for the screen by writer/director Peter Landesman, Concussion has one hell of a story to work with, and as Omalu Will Smith delivers one of his strongest performances, doing away with any of the cocky charisma he usually injects into his roles and presenting us with a personable persona that carries the film through its rocky travels. It’s a polished film but a flawed one all the same as the exposing of brain damage to a league of players is a powerful aspect that is sadly offset by Landesman’s unnecessary need to weave a romance angle into the proceedings.
The relationship between Omalu and Prema Mutiso (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a young Kenyan nurse who is initially housed with Omalu whilst she finds more permanent work and accommodation, is sweet and fluffy but could’ve been something far more effective. As contrived as their relationship is presented, the chemistry between Smith and Mbatha-Raw elevates this artificiality to something somewhat believable. As expected it’s Omalu’s discoveries of the preliminary abnormalities in the player’s deaths that give Concussion its weight, particularly through the first case involving one-time star footballer Mike Webster (a chilling David Morse) whose decaying state as he loses his mind to bouts of chronic pain and depression brings home the severity of the condition that would come to be known as CTE. Morse is nearly unrecognisable in his small but pivotal role, and emerges as just one of the many strong supporting performances ‘Concussion’ is fortunate enough to contain.
Albert Brooks as Omalu’s sympathetic boss, Eddie Marsan as the scientist whose understanding of Omalu’s work leads to its preliminary publication, and Alec Baldwin as the league’s in-house medical consultant who goes against his colleagues in the midst of CTE’s acknowledgement all deliver – though Baldwin’s odd occasional accent twinge had me questioning – but it’s Smith’s film through and through, and it’s a shame Concussion has been as overlooked as it has as there’s a passion in his delivery that has been sorely absent from a great deal of his last performances.
A film that doesn’t want to attack the sport its putting in the line of fire but merely question its tactics, Concussion succeeds as a vehicle for Smith and as a satisfactory entrant in the right-against-might sports drama category.
Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)