Director: Peter Landesman (Parkland)
Writer: Peter Landesman
Producers: Elizabeth Cantillon, Giannina Facio-Scott, Ridley Scott, Larry Shuman, David Wolthoff
Starring: Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Albert Brooks, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Morse, Arliss Howard, Mike O’Malley, Eddie Marsan
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running time: 123 min.
My original posting of this review can be found HERE
A lot of hubbub was made leading up to the release of Peter Landesman’s Concussion over accusations that the film toned down its treatment of the NFL in the depiction of this true story detailing the way that the league hid knowledge of the catastrophic brain damage their athletes suffered on the field. If this is the toned down version, I can’t even begin to imagine what the other version was like. Landesman’s script demonizes the league from start to finish, lionizing Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) as the righteous crusader, with the NFL practically holding a pitchfork as they go out of their way to destroy his life while decimating the psychological well-being of their athletes and endangering the lives of those men’s families after they’ve succumbed to the ailments that playing the game caused to their brains. Is it an interesting story? Perhaps. Is it an important one that deserves to be put up on the screen to grant wider recognition? Probably. Is it in any way, shape, or form, subtle or handled with the tiniest bit of delicacy? Not by a long shot.
Landesman, in what is only his second film after the milquetoast JFK assassination ensemble piece Parkland, has a journalistic approach to his writing that charges adrenaline into potent scenes of Omalu fighting against this corrupt system, but he lets his rightful anger get in the way of presenting the story in an objective fashion. There’s no grey areas here, no rounding of these characters into believable human beings. Instead we get a black and white, David vs. Goliath tale that has trouble maintaining its momentum when it reaches the final act and realizes that resolution for this story was still many years away. It’s tragic what happened to these men, there’s no question about that, and Landesman is just in wanting to paint the NFL in this light for their actions, but it doesn’t make for a very level-headed product and that imbalance can get in the way of his storytelling at times. This is especially true in any scene where Omalu comes up against the people representing the league, where they’re depicted like the arrogant, shady corporate devils of a piece of John Grisham, or the goofy moments showing the players battling their disease, which pitch the melodrama to its highest level and clash wildly with the rest of the film.
Concussion is at its strongest when focusing on Omalu as an individual, thanks in no small part to a sturdy performance from Will Smith. After years away from the limelight of the big screen, Smith started out 2015 by reminding us just how well he can harness his movie star wattage in the underrated Focus, and he ends it here by showing us what a gifted dramatic actor he is when he’s willing to buckle down and get into the heart and soul of his characters. There’s no flash to Bennet Omalu, leaving Smith without his trademark smirk and knack for a great one-liner. Instead, he’s got to find the inner life of this man and his portrayal is one of great passion, while also possessing the humanism that Landesman’s writing and directing sorely lacked. Concussion ultimately isn’t a film that will leave you with much more than a shrug (and likely a yawn as its meandering final act makes it feel every minute of its bloated 123-minute runtime), but if nothing else it holds the promise that Smith still has the capacity to be the best of both worlds the way that he’s always been. Hopefully this year is a sign that he’s truly back.