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Movie review: ‘Concussion’ doesn’t hit quite as hard as it could

Alec Baldwin, from left, stars as Dr. Julian Bailes, and Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu, in a scene from Columbia Pictures’ “Concussion.”
Alec Baldwin, from left, stars as Dr. Julian Bailes, and Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu, in a scene from Columbia Pictures’ “Concussion.” Columbia Pictures

“Concussion,” written and directed by Peter Landesman, establishes two things right away — the extreme reverence that people have for football, through a Hall of Fame acceptance speech by Pittsburgh Steeler “Iron Mike” Webster (David Morse); and the bona fides of Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith), an extremely well-educated Nigerian immigrant and forensic neuropathologist in the Pittsburgh coroner’s office. These are the two conflicting forces throughout the film: the love of the game and the undeniability of science. The basis for the film, the 2009 GQ article “Game Brain” by Jeanne Marie Laskas (she also wrote the subsequent book “Concussion”), relies more heavily on the latter.

Dr. Omalu is a curious, sensitive man who is excited about his work; the kind of coroner who treats his bodies as people, asking them to help him find out what happened to them. This is where Iron Mike ends up, dead at 50, scarred by self-inflicted Taser wounds, living out of his truck and tormented by voices in his head. Needing to know why he ended up this way, Bennet sets off down a self-funded path to discovery, and what he discovers is something that one of the most powerful organizations in the country wants to keep quiet.

It’s a new disease, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), caused by the kind of repeated head injuries common for football players, boxers or wrestlers. This is controversial because his findings dare to suggest that playing football could be a hazard to one’s health. This isn’t something that the NFL wants its players — or the aspiring college and high school players with dreams of making it to the big leagues — knowing.

Smith gives a strong performance as Omalu, with more than just his distinctive African accent. He portrays him as a caring and determined man, an outsider who is able to see things as they are because he’s not beholden to the religion of football. He believes in the American dream, which is why he’s so appalled that these players, dreamers themselves, are tossed aside when they no longer have monetary value.

“Concussion” suffers a bit from not knowing where to focus, and it glosses over some of the important connective tissue that would better demonstrate Dr. Omalu’s work. It stuffs those moments into montages and instead lingers on scenes where he struggles with his rationalization for speaking up, trying to convince others to do the right thing. There are pep talks and tossed-off truisms, and not enough procedure. This back and forth feels like an appeasement to the NFL itself, to show the struggle in taking on the league, which, if the science is to be believed, he absolutely should.

It’s hard to watch “Concussion” and not feel infuriated about the systems of power that exploit bodies for profit and then have the gall to not take care of these people. Coupled with documentaries like “Happy Valley” or “The Hunting Ground,” you can’t help but feel that to remain a consumer of the NFL or college football is to be party to an exploitative organization. But the film ends on a note that essentially says it’s OK to love the sport of football, just that we should take care of our players. Seems like a fair compromise, but for a film that wants to hit hard, where it hurts, at the end it seems to shy away from that direct impact.

Concussion

 1/2 out of 5

Cast: Will Smith, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Albert Brooks, Alec Baldwin, David Morse.

Director: Peter Landesman.

Running time: 2:03.

Rated: PG-13, for thematic material including some disturbing images, and language.

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