We open on a doctor being interviewed in court. He’s here to give testimony as a forensic expert, but he takes his sweet time getting to it, offering a comedically long list of degrees and specialisms before finally getting to the point, which is that he’s really good at autopsies; when it comes to autopsies, if he doesn’t know it then it’s not worth knowing. He enjoys them, too, which makes him a bit of an odd, but really a rather sweet, character when you get to know him. He is real life’s Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian immigrant to the United States, and, now that we’ve been formally introduced, we will soon see him at work, listening to soul music on headphones and chatting good-naturedly with the corpses. When he is tasked with performing an autopsy on Steelers legend Mike Webster he is, unlike the rest of the entirety of Pittsburgh, unfazed; that is, until he discovers that Webster was likely suffering from a previously unknown form of brain damage, one caused by repeated head trauma of the type suffered playing American football. Naming the disorder chronic traumatic encephalopathy, he goes public with his results whereupon he is naïvely surprised to discover that the NFL have little interest in working with him to solve the problem, and much more interest in attempting a cover-up.
The ins and outs of the shady corporate dealings that go on behind the scenes of America’s biggest sport could make for a fascinating documentary; Concussion isn’t that film, because it’s not a documentary. It’s a solid inspirational biopic and, as such, it’s not interested in the complexities of the sports-industrial complex so much as it is in a classic story about a (more-or-less) lone good man confronting an evil empire, and it tells that story well. There is a degree of irony in that a film about exposing a sporting conspiracy should itself adopt the structure of a traditional underdog sports drama, but it is a template that’s been proven to work. And the film works well enough using what is, essentially, a sort of placeholder of a structure, because its main purpose is simply to showcase its hero doctor Omalu, played with great charisma and deep sensitivity by Will Smith who, somewhat surprisingly, does a perfect job of capturing the sing-song cadence of the West African accent, one which is easily stereotyped. Smith is a naturally likeable actor, and here he’s playing a naturally likeable character, one totally devoid of the playful arrogance that is the hallmark of his typical rôles. If anything, the film weakens itself by making Omalu too likeable, but it’s easy to see why: the story of a foreigner fighting a legal battle against, essentially, football itself, is not one that is likely to win the hearts and minds of Americans. So Omalu is shown to have two major commitments in life; a deep Christian faith and a firm belief that the United States is the greatest nation on Earth. By themselves, there is nothing wrong with either. But the script is so determined that we the audience really get how great this guy is that he often seems to have just two default topics of conversation. This could have seriously (rather than only slightly) damaged the enjoyment of the picture, were the material in the hands of an actor less assured.
For support, Smith has a strong cast to work with, not that the film is ever about anything less than The Dr. Omalu Story. Albert Brooks is in classic Albert Brooks mode as an older doctor who plays a sort of mentor to Smith’s character: cynical, yet dignified; dignified, yet cynical. Alec Baldwin, like Smith and Brooks an actor equally at home in comedic and dramatic rôles, provides his usual gravelly presence as an NFL whistleblower. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, primarily a British television actress, is fine but quite overlooked as Omalu’s wife, while Hill Harper is perhaps a little too slimy as the film’s villain. None of these performances ever outshine the film’s central turn, but neither are any of them intended to.
Concussion opened in the States last Christmas to little fanfare; unlike Will Smith’s previous dramatic turns in Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness, it received no attention from the Academy, and most of its award nominations are from black-focussed organisations like the AAFCA, the NAACP and, yes, the All Def Movie Awards. But it has more to offer than a black actor at the top of his game taking on America’s top game, and one hopes its home video release will see it earning more respect.
Concussion arrives on Steelbook Blu-ray, DVD and Digital HD today (6th June), will you be checking it out? Let us know in the comment box below!