So I watched Concussion…
When I first saw this movie’s trailer I had a feeling of apprehension instead of excitement. It wasn’t because I didn’t think the subject matter would be interesting to see – I was worried about Will Smith’s involvement. Smith is an extremely talented actor who’s made a plethora of entertaining films but the last few haven’t been great. He made a film called After Earth, a few years ago, which left a really sour taste in my mouth and he hasn’t done enough good work after that to sufficiently cleanse my palate. I’m happy to say my palate is now cleansed and I’ll return to looking at Will Smith’s name on a poster with expectant glee.
Okay, basic plot: Dr Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) is a forensic pathologist working in the Allegheny County. He is an extremely well-educated man, holding several advanced degrees and a man with a true passion for his work. After performing an autopsy on Mike Webster (David Morse) – a former football star whose life had spiralled rather suddenly into a life of homelessness, mental instability and eventual suicide – Omalu has difficulty comprehending how a man as successful and healthy as that could develop mental illness so suddenly. He orders a battery of tests (at his own expense) and discovers an alarming neurological deterioration in Webster’s brain; a deterioration he believes was caused by continued trauma caused by playing football. As more and more ex-footballers die with circumstances similar to Webster’s, Omalu feels compelled to share his findings and warn the NFL about this new disease. The NFL, players and fans don’t want to hear it because of the threat it poses to the game they love. With little to no support, Omalu embarks on a crusade to expose the truth.
Will Smith is back! I know I said something similar in my review of his performance in Focus but I feel compelled to do every time he puts in a good performance after the disaster that was his acting in After Earth. From his very first scene, you can feel the charisma and swagger that typifies a Will Smith performance. That being said, this is probably the most un-Will-Smith-like performance I’ve ever seen him in. In the majority of Will Smith performances, I always feel like the persona of Smith overpowers the actual character he’s playing. It always feels like I’m watching Will Smith be Will Smith pretending to be another character. In this film, however, Smith embodies the character and makes it his own; but doesn’t alter the character to suit his needs. It’s an extremely convincing performance and one of the best of Smith’s career. He also has to put on a Nigerian accent and I thought he did really well with it. Hollywood tends to have a heavy hand when it comes to accents, especially with ones from my side of the world. The Nigerian accent is already quite a potent one so I can see how it could have gone wrong but Smith handles it with an air of finesse and subtlety and it comes off really well.
Smith is this film’s best commodity but the supporting cast around him do really well. Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars as Omalu’s wife, Prema, and I wish she had been roped into more scenes because she and Smith have amazing chemistry. The other standout performance for me in this film was that of Albert Brooks as Cyril Wecht – Omalu’s boss and professional mentor. Will Smith does a great job creating this grand persona for Omalu. He’s an extremely confident man and one who makes his presence felt. So since Wecht is Omalu’s mentor, he has to have a grander presence than him and Brooks does this to perfection. It isn’t an extravagant performance but Brooks brings so much strength and conviction to the character that he ends up stealing spotlight away from Smith at times. I also really enjoyed David Morse’s acting. He’s only there for a handful of minutes but he commits to the role and puts in a good turn.
Now good acting isn’t the only reason to watch this movie – it also tells a pretty powerful story. The only time I watch America Football is when it’s in a movie but I am a sports fan and can appreciate the gravity of this film’s storyline. Men lost their minds. They were driven to violence, self-abuse and some even suicide. The worse part about all of this is that the league, the organisation they gave their bodies and lives to, chose to ignore the issue. Someone in the film makes a comment about how this situation is similar to how Tobacco companies used to deny that there was a link between smoking and increased chances of cancer. It’s insane to think about the amount of deception and unethical behaviour that went into covering this secret up. This film is incredibly informative and enlightening. People are going to obviously draw their own conclusions and make their own decisions but hopefully now when they make those decisions, they’ll do so with more information in their hands.
This film is well-paced and well-balanced – acting as both a biopic on Dr Bennet Omalu and documentary on the disease that he discovered. For the most part, it’s a highly focused film which doesn’t try to tell us every single event but focuses on the major highlights in the story. It also explains the medical and scientific aspects of the disease quite well and makes it accessible to the audience. It doesn’t talk down to us but also realises that we might not all have advanced degrees in neurology. Director and screenwriter, Peter Landesman, deserves some praise for the focused and emotionally-engaging film he produces. Unfortunately, the film does lose steam in its third act. There are also moments between Dr Omalu and his wife that don’t feel necessary to the story. The film drags in its last twenty minutes or so and you’re happy when the ending comes.
Overall, Concussion is far better than I thought it would be. This is due to a great set of performances led by Will Smith and a tight and focused narrative provided by Landesman. Near the end of the film, Concussion just feels like it doesn’t have any more to share but needs to fill its runtime and that’s really the only problem I had with it. It’s a well-crafted movie and one worth seeing. 8/10