Movie Review: “Concussion” (Peter Landesman, UK/Australia/USA 2015)

This is the basic premise of Concussion: an immigrant doctor uncovers a terrible brain injury being caused by football and works to bring it to light. That premise could be used to make films about a number of things.

It could be a film about how terrible Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy is, by using Omalu’s discovery as merely a means of entry into the story of Dave Duerson, Mike Webster, or any of a hundred other players. If what you want people to get from the film is the horror of CTE, showing us how Mike Webster decides to distract himself from the pain by pulling out his own teeth and then supergluing them back in is far more powerful than just having Omalu say that he’s been doing so. Duerson’s change from vicious defender of “the Shield” to broken man who commits suicide and leaves behind a note asking for his brain to be studied for the very effects he had denied just a few years before is powerful even in the abbreviated form presented in the final film where we see nothing of what he has experienced, so imagine how it would work in an entire film.

It could be a film about the power of scientific inquiry. We hear from multiple doctors in the film about how they didn’t want to believe Omalu’s findings but are convinced by the science, but we don’t get to see that process play out at all. Imagine a film that is about Omalu’s careful investigation of the brains, the evidence that he uncovers, and how he has to present it to other scientists, who all are forced to admit that a game they have enjoyed as much as everyone else in America is causing such harm.

It could be a film about the evils of a super-powerful mega-corporation. The NFL, as Cyril Wecht says in the film, “owns a day of the week.” Paul Reiser points out the number of people the NFL imploys and how much money it provides to all aspects of society. Imagine a film that is about Omalu’s struggle against such a corporation, emphasizing how its size and money have made it so powerful that it can ignore even a threat so basic as, “You’re killing your own men.” It could be a powerful anti-capitalist screed, even if it would probably be rather over-simplistic.

It could be a film about the vibrance of the “American dream.” This would be the least interesting possibility, but it could even be a simple love story between two immigrants who came to the United States seeking opportunity in the medical field. One found the opportunity he sought, only to be stonewalled on his biggest discovery, while the other was instead attacked and then forced to accept soup kitchen-level work. Each was able to show the other that perseverence was the proper road and that the opportunity that once defined America is still present and they fell in love along the way.

But Landesman doesn’t give us any of those stories. Instead, he presents a confused story that is at once telling us the story of an immigrant’s attempts to fit in in his new country, his love story with his wife, the dangers that repeated head trauma present to football players, and the NFL’s attempts to hide those dangers.

However, that’s not even confused enough: The film is really a political allegory. The bulk of the film is really about how The Church (which is treated and referenced as one monolithic entity) is accepting, welcoming, and even helping of immigrants as opposed to the xenophobic sentiments wrought by football fandom. Hardly a scene goes by without a cross present, except of course in NFL settings, where there are of course no crosses and the New Orleans Saints logo is essentially hidden. When Wecht says that the NFL “owns a day of the week,” he has to point out that it’s “the same day the church used to own,” emphasizing the film’s desire to show “the Church” and the NFL as opposing agents. The NFL represents the country going away from its religious past and turning to xenophobia while “the Church” is the country’s welcoming traditional past. The point is pretty obvious, and one that’s to be expected from a film produced by Ridley Scott: Religion is great and all modern societal issues are caused by the country turning its back on that religion.

If the film stuck to that point, it could still work, but the problem is that it’s only maybe 40% of the film, while the rest is made up of details of Omalu’s life and the story of the NFL’s concussion protocol that really have nothing to do with that point. It’s a film that’s more interested in telling a story than making a point, which renders it incapable of fully making any of its points.

Landesman and cinematographer Salvatore Totino (Who was, interestingly, the cinematographer of  Any Given Sunday [Oliver Stone, USA 1999], a particularly brutal football film that really emphasizes the violence and pain involved in professional football. Stone seems to ahve had more to do with its ability to do so than Totino.) also don’t show much imagination. The film looks like a television movie, with no imagination for colors, angles, lighting, etc. Their only even slightly unconventional choice is the constant heavy-handed cutting to shots of just religious symbols, a choice that is annoying, since the presence of the symbols really was enough.

The acting is really this film’s best point. I’ve honestly still never seen Will Smith have to do much, but he’s done what he’s been asked every time I’ve ever seen him, and this film was no different. Omalu is a pretty reserved guy who is basically depicted as human perfection, which Smith plays but has relatively little to do. Gugu Mbatha-Raw has a much more difficult role, playing a woman who has more varied feelings and is far less reserved but is trying to be as reserved as Omalu–she has to show us both how she feels and that she’s trying to act like him throughout, and she does so very well. However, the best acting is surprisingly from David Morse, who is almost unrecognizable playing the broken, crazed, demented Mike Webster of the end of Webster’s life. Morse has never really impressed me before, but that portrayal was the most powerful thing in this film–even before hearing some of the details that Omalu mentions about how much pain Webster was really apparently in, that pain, terror, and desire to act as the strong leader all come across so well form Morse’s performance that those details only heighten it. None of the minor roles are played poorly, even when they are given laughable dialogue, which is a definite plus.

James Newton Howard is one of the most underrated composers in Hollywood, and this film was another example of why–his score is fantastic. Every emotion in the film is heightened by his music, and the music that appears that he did not compose does exactly the opposite. (That song that was playing when Omalu was smashing the wall of his house was perhaps the worst song I’ve ever heard in my life and ruined what should have been a great image.)

Concussion is not a good film, because it won’t stick with what it wants to say, its look is extremely dull, and dialogue is often eye-rollingly stilted. But the acting is excellent and parts of the story are so powerful that there are still excellent sequences here, even if they really don’t advance the film’s point. It’s not as good as it could have been, but it does enough well that it’s not as bad as it could have been either.

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