Review: Concussion Doesn’t Feel Angry Enough But Has Great Performances
Director: Peterson Landesman
Screenwriter: Peter Landesman (written by) and Jeanne Marie Laskas (GQ article “Gain Brain”) (in part)
Principal Cast: Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Albert Brooks, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Morse, and Arliss Howard
Summary: In Pittsburgh, accomplished pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu uncovers the truth about brain damage in football players who suffer repeated concussions in the course of normal play.
There is a growing trend in Hollywood that was making me very nervous for a long time. It seemed like all of the big name actors decided that performing on auto pilot seemed like a good idea. People like Tom Cruise and Johnny Depp were walking around in movies they obviously didn’t care about and playing roles that didn’t challenge them at all as actors. While not everyone has gotten out of this funk the major movie stars seem to be trying again. While Tom Cruise is still doing the super spy thing in the Mission Impossible movies he’s realized that sharing the spotlight makes for a much better movie. Johnny Depp took on Black Mass earlier this year to remind everyone that he knows how to act. Even Harrison Ford seemed awake and engaged in The Force Awakens. Will Smith was another major player who has been taking on strange roles that make no sense or working in projects like After Earth that are just glorifying how cool his kids are. When I saw that Smith was playing the lead in Concussion I was worried. Does Will Smith remember how to be a good actor?
Concussion has some great performances by its leads but the story it’s telling feels far too withdrawn and watered down.
This movie follows Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) as he begins to look into the deaths surrounding former football players. As someone who wasn’t born in America Omalu doesn’t really understand why everyone is so hesitant to figure out why a man in his fifties, who used to be at the peak of health, suddenly went out of his mind. With the help of a former team doctor Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin) Omalu must work hard to go up against the biggest organization in the country as they try to discredit him. There has been a lot of media buzz surrounding this movie as there are rumors that the NFL pushed back against the movie much like it did when this information was first being revealed. I have a feeling that is at least a little true because the movie feels very watered down. It feels like the movie isn’t condemning the NFL nearly as hard as it should be. At one point someone compares the NFL denying the head injuries being related to football like the tobacco companies denying cigarettes were harmful in the 90’s. No one seems passionate or angry enough about this situation.
Perhaps that was intentional because Omalu is a very soft spoken and calm man. We only see him really lose his cool once and the scene isn’t very long. Omalu and his wife Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) don’t seem angry or upset enough that a sports organization is trying to ruin their lives. The movie feels the same way and maybe it was trying to adapt to the main characters tone but I don’t think that was the case. Director Peter Landesman doesn’t have a lot of work under his belt and the movie feels a little amateur in some ways. Perhaps this is a personal thing but I cannot stand shaky, handheld camera work in a setting where that makes no sense. Concussion has a lot of that. (The shaky cam was invented by low budget productions to hide a lack of special effects or something like that.) The producers of Concussion can afford to pay Will Smith, Alec Baldwin and Albert Brooks so there is no reason to employ these techniques.
The thing that saves the entire production is the fact that the entire cast is very good. Smith has jumped back into the legitimate acting pool with both feet as he produces perhaps one of his best performances to date. Omalu is a very soft spoken and godly man who wants to speak on behalf of the dead because no one else can. It’s not something you’d expect from Smith and it’s a welcome change. He has great back up from Baldwin as a conflicted former team doctor. There is a real feeling that Baldwin manages to convey about what Bailes was giving up when he sided with Omalu on these findings. Mbatha-Raw is great as well. We last saw her in the period drama Belle and I hope this film helps her get bigger roles. She has the potential to be a real movie star.
Concussion is a solid film with great performances all around, but with a weird directing style and a screenplay that doesn’t condemn the NFL nearly as much as it should makes it stumble. As one characters says they are “going up against an organization that owns a day of the week. It used to belong to the church but now it belongs to them” so I’m not entirely surprised that the spectre of the NFL hangs over this entire movie. It’s not a dealbreaker but it does keep a good movie from being great.