Is there anything Americans love more than football? Playing is a rite of passage for many boys. The Super Bowl is the biggest program to air each year. There’s a culture that’s so enthralled with the sport, it’s hard to suggest that there are serious problems with modern play. Concussion explores one of the more notable issues to face professional football in recent years, the man behind the discoveries, and the NFL’s attempts to discredit his results.
Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) is a Nigerian doctor working in Pittsburgh as a medical examiner. When he’s assigned to perform the autopsy on Mike Webster (David Morse), a former member of the Steelers who was beloved during his time as a player, and was found in a truck he was living in at the time of his death. Because of the city’s admiration of him years earlier, many fans express their belief that the autopsy not be performed at all, as a form of respect. Curious as to how a 50 year old who seemed physically healthy could die after exhibiting symptoms of dementia, though, Omalu proceeds – and comes across signs of damage that can be caused by repeated concussions.
With the support of both his mentor Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks) and former Steelers team doctor Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), Omalu begins to try and make his case by finding other subjects with similar findings, then publishing his findings in a medical journal. It isn’t long, though, before the NFL begins to dismiss his findings, even as more former football players die with similar symptoms of what is eventually termed chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). And it’s at this point, where the discoveries have already been made, that the film hits a brick wall. There are only so many variations the characters can make in trying to get the NFL and the public at large to acknowledge CTE.
In an attempt make the narrative more interesting, Concussion focuses on Omalu’s status as an immigrant to emphasize his status as an outsider. Omalu doesn’t follow football; the television in his apartment is there simply because he sees it as an American norm. The film features a subplot where he takes in another recent immigrant, Prema Mutiso (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), as a houseguest who eventually becomes his wife. And while Smith’s usual confidence is still present, there’s a calmness that he’s able to project here. His confidence isn’t simply bravado; he’s able to back up his work with a slew of degrees in specific medical disciplines, as well as music and business. That confidence helps sell Omalu’s belief in his work, which is only threatened when his belief in the American dream clashes with personal and professional threats.
There’s a potential this story holds, though, that unfortunately never comes through. The NFL’s threats are largely suggested, which neuters the impact they have at times. The film also suggests repeatedly that there’s a beauty to the sport, without trying to reconcile this supposed beauty with the significant potential for life-threatening injuries. The inclusion of subplots that don’t directly relate to Omalu’s fight to have CTE recognized by the NFL, even when they’re watchable, weaken what could have been a stronger film. By the time the NFL finally concedes, any potential drama is gone.