Back in September, shortly after the first trailer debuted for Peter Landesman’s Concussion, the New York Times ran a story alleging the filmmakers had — if I may use a baseball metaphor for a football movie — switched from a fastball to an underhand pitch. The story, drawn from emails attained during the Sony hack the previous winter, quoted from multiple email exchanges between studio execs, director Landesman, and reps of star Will Smith, contending the film’s dramatization of Dr. Bennet Omalu’s crusade against the National Football League had been softened considerably from the script’s initial drafts. The Times may have been right, but if they were, all I can say is this: based on the movie we got, it’s hard to imagine how scathing those earlier drafts must’ve been.
Smith plays Omalu, a Nigerian immigrant and scholar who works, methodically and unassumingly, for the Pittsburgh coroner’s office. When Mike Webster (David Morse), the legendary Steelers center, winds up on Omalu’s slab, dead at 50, something doesn’t seem right to the good doctor; he orders a full battery of tests on the athlete’s body, and sees something in the test that makes him sit straight up and say, “My god.”
Omalu develops a theory that Webster, and several other players driven to early death and suicide, fell victim to a neurodegenerative disease he dubs CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) — brain damage, similar to dementia or Alzheimer’s, caused by head trauma suffered in the high-impact sport. He publishes his findings in a small medical journal, but when it makes its way to the League, the fallout is swift and devastating: harassment, threats, denial. His mentor (Albert Brooks) is brought up on federal charges. His wife (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is followed and run off the road, resulting in a miscarriage. He’s chased out of his job and his city, and forced to abandon the dream home he’d not yet moved his family into.
In other words, no, contrary to legitimate concerns, Concussion is not some sort of snowball mash note to the NFL. It portrays, in vivid detail, the consequences of speaking out against an organization that, as fellow doctor Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin) puts it, “owns a day of the week — the same day the church used to own.” It may not give us a scene where a shadowy NFL figure picks up the phone and barks, “Take him down,” but it does give us scenes of various figures connected to the organization, conspiring and plotting against Omalu; what’s more, we see the human toll of their campaign, as he breaks down at his wife’s bedside (“This is my fault”), as he tears apart their untouched home, aware of all the unkept promises it represents.
Concussion represents the finest film work of Smith’s career to date — his accent, while initially jarring, is convincing, and the scenes in which he speaks truth to power (particularly the trailer’s already ubiquitous “Tell the truth!” directive) are intense yet quiet, angry yet controlled. His support is plentiful, and able; Morse shines in his brief role, Brooks cruises into his scenes with presumed authority and dry wit and steals every damn one of them, Baldwin puts across his character’s moral struggle with welcome modesty, and Mbatha-Raw is warm and charismatic (even if the courtship subplot is a bit of a dud).
Concussion mostly sticks to formula; it’s a crusading whistleblower movie, not too far from (though slightly inferior to) The Insider, both an actor’s showcase and a vehicle for creating restrained goosebumps. It’s easy to read those Sony emails as a giant multinational conglomerate hedging their bets; it’s also easy to read them as a studio taking pains to avoid alienating the very audience that should see their film, and contemplate it. According to the Times, execs wrote that “press materials should note that Mr. Smith likes football and one of his sons played the game.” I don’t doubt those facts are true. And if you’re aware of them, you’ll wonder what was going through Smith’s head as he shot this film’s quietly devastating final scene.
Concussion is out Christmas Day.