“Concussion” is a movie about the discovery of long-term neurodegenerative changes in professional athletes. That synopsis conjures up images of people in lab coats peering into microscopes and that is certainly part of the story, but there’s more. Add in a David and Goliath storyline, some romance and a condemnation of complacency and you’re left with a movie that has something important to say but doesn’t know exactly how to say it.
Will Smith is Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian forensic neuropathologist who happens to be on duty the night the body of football legend Mike Webster (David Morse) is delivered to the morgue. As a scientist Omalu can’t understand the events leading to Webster’s death. Why did the seemingly healthy man act irrationally and slowly waste away?
A study of Webster’s brain uncovers irregularities likely caused by concussions suffered on the football field. Naming the condition Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) Omalu publishes his findings in a medical journal and almost immediately finds himself under fire from the NFL who feel the doctor’s study implies playing football is bad for your health. If it is bad for football, they suggest, it is bad for America.
Death threats and looming legal action punt Omalu and his new wife’s (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) lives into the end zone as new cases of CTE come to light.
“Concussion” is the kind of movie you know is going to feature at least one figurative Gatorade Shower, a feel good moment geared to excite audiences. The resolution of the David and Goliath angle is meant to be a crowd-pleasing story element. Smith plays Omalu as a proud, moral man, someone with the strength of his convictions who is pushed aside by an evil empire. When he is proven right—that’s not a spoiler, just historical fact—it should be a rousing moment but like much of the film it simply doesn’t quicken the pulse.
Smith is understated and strong as Omalu, bringing every ounce of his movie star charisma to the lead role. A script bogged down by a tagged-on love story and heavy-handed exposition, however, thwarts his good work. The core of the story—how the NFL ignored potentially life-saving information—should provide enough righteous indignation to fuel the movie but doesn’t. “Concussion” doesn’t back down from pointing the finger at the suits who demeaned Omalu’s work but it lacks the passion to truly work up a head of steam.