Concussion isn’t much of a movie, but it’s a fascinating bellwether for where the National Football League currently stands on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disease associated with many of its former players. As it happens, the human brain isn’t supposed to whip against the skull like a crash test dummy. Blows to the head can have devastating long-term effects, including depression, memory loss, and a turn toward erratic, aggressive behavior. It only takes one big hit to turn today’s sports hero into tomorrow’s case study.
By now, fans are familiar with the sick ritual of an average Sunday: A player gets knocked cold, lies prone on the field for a couple of seconds, and stumbles off into parts unknown like the wayward penguin in Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World. The announcers will say something glib like “He got his bell rung,” the team doctor will give him the once-over, and soon enough the athlete is back on the field, ready for further punishment. Concussion protocol has improved as awareness of CTE has increased — announcers now speak of bell-ringing in a more sober tone — but additional safety measures will not likely change the fundamental danger of football. We choose to dip our chips and live with the casualty rate.
The fight over Concussion has already turned into a Goliath-versus-Goliath tussle between Sony (the film’s distributor) and the NFL, which controls its messaging as aggressively as its copyright claims. Back in September, an A1 New York Times story, drawn largely from a fretful series of leaked emails, suggested Sony and the film’s writer-director, Peter Landesman (Parkland), would be the ones to blink first. But like many stories about films filed before their authors have seen them, the Times piece turned out to be speculative — that is, unless the NFL is comfortable being depicted as a heartless, underhanded, obfuscating cabal of corporate goons. (Then again, Luke Wilson’s square-jawed mirthlessness as commissioner Roger Goodell is no match for the real thing.)
Still, Concussion often feels softer than a lineman’s belly. That has less to do with Landesman’s willingness to confront the NFL than his inability to keep his eye on the ball. Much like The Insider, Michael Mann’s jaundiced take on the tobacco industry, Landesman’s film uses a real-life whistleblower to expose the evils of a multibillion-dollar institution. Opening in 2002, Concussion follows Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith), a Nigerian forensic pathologist who conducts autopsies in a Pittsburgh coroner’s office by treating the dead as if they were living people, each with a story to tell. But the fifty-year-old body of Mike Webster (David Morse), a Hall of Fame center for the Steelers, ain’t talking. Webster’s brain appears normal at autopsy, but his medical history prompts Omalu to order additional (and self-financed) testing on Webster’s tissue matter, which reveals disturbing evidence of what Omalu will go on to identify as CTE in a medical journal in 2005.
Landesman, a former journalist, dutifully follows the breadcrumbs from case to case as Omalu accumulates findings from more dead athletes, gains a powerful ally in former Steelers team doctor Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), and comes under intense scrutiny from the league, the media, and local sports crazies. Just getting all the facts straight is a lot for one movie to handle, to say nothing of offering a thorough look at the metastasizing implications for the culture and business of America’s game. Telling the story through Omalu makes sense as an organizing principle, since the current fervor over CTE stems from his findings. And his status as an immigrant and a football agnostic complicates his agenda: He’s at once unclouded in his objectives and an outsider, easily dismissed by the establishment.
Concussion does the baseline work of sounding the alarm on CTE; the NFL won’t feel good about the film and will likely tar it with the relentlessness of Scientology’s attack on Going Clear. But the more expansive its argument gets, the less focused Landesman is on the task at hand. To put it in journalist terms, Landesman has turned an exposé into a profile piece, which works well when the two go hand-in-glove, but considerably less so when he drifts into Omalu’s personal life. A title as blunt as Concussion would seem to function as a narrative North Star, but scenes of Omalu’s courtship of his wife, Prema (a squandered Gugu Mbatha-Raw), consistently take the movie off-topic. Is this a film about brain trauma or a Will Smith vehicle? It can’t be both.
There’s a prevailing sense, too, that our understanding of the CTE problem is only in its infancy, despite the combined force of the NFL’s PR spin and a fan base eager to walk it off. Concussion could be the Philadelphia of films about CTE, an earnest marker for where the mainstream stood before it grasped the magnitude of the problem. For now, though, it’s one for the vault.
Written and directed by Peter Landesman
Opens December 25
Written and directed by Peter Landesman. Based on a GQ article by Jeanne Marie Laskas. Starring Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Arliss Howard, Paul Reiser, and Luke Wilson.