The NFL is long past being just another successful sporting organization and has gone on to become its own sort of mega-corporation built off the backs of generations of athletes. It’s practically become synonymous with Sundays in the fall and has only grown more popular thanks to the likes of fantasy sports. In the United States, it seems to be an unstoppable organization with very few naysayers interested in tapping the brakes to question the inherent dangers of the game. That was the case until Hollywood decided to take on one of its chief rivals in entertainment with Concussion, a film based on the 2009 GQ expose “Gamebrain”. The subject is undeniably relevant, but with so much pressure to reveal the truth behind the NFL cover-up, does Concussion bring its A-game?
After the tragic death of Pittsburgh’s most valued Steelers’ player Mike Webster (David Morse), Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) is convinced that the death was caused by undetected brain damage Webster experienced from playing center in his years in the NFL. After taking his findings to publication, Omalu is pressured by everyone from the city of Pittsburgh to the FBI to retract his discovery of Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) McKinney Park. Eventually one of the NFL’s sideline doctors Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin) steps up to help Omalu get his story out to the public. As Omalu’s news begins to get traction, his reputation and family are threatened as the NFL attempts to destroy everything he’s worked to build.
The story is one driven with heart and admirable passion for exposing the truth of the NFL’s cover up of long term effects of head trauma. The tagline for the film has been “for the players,” but ultimately the players in the film are underdeveloped and used as means to further the message. Though its certainly no fault in the story, it does mean the film is running an especially misleading marketing campaign.
Promotional material aside, Omalu’s drive and dedication to get his story into the public eye is moving and even inspiring. Against all of the odds and the pressure Omalu never abandons his mission to make things right. His character begins the film as a naive idealist who assumes people will want to know the harm the sport of football is having on its players. Throughout the film his altruism is challenged time and time again and he hold true to his god fearing convictions all the way until the very end. He’s the inspiring anchor this film needed and Will Smith nails it with his best performance in nearly a decade.
The film’s heart and the importance of its message is never in question. The public reaction to the truth is not shocking given the reach and popularity of football, but the film never really takes time to relate to its Dan Marino loving audience who watch games every week.
Concussion‘s brow raising premise is going to have audiences curious despite the fact that it’s designed to smear the NFL’s reputation. From the moment the movie opens with a montage of football players hitting each other head with a stereotypical unsettling score, you know exactly what type of film you’re in for. The movie never stops once to exam why people appreciate the sport or if the audience in the theater is inclined to listen to its message, but rather beats the issue into your head relentlessly without regret. No matter how honest or powerful the truth of Concussion is, the film’s lack of subtlety and clunky presentation have robbed it of having its fullest impact on the audience who needs it the most. Like the recent stint of church funded films such as God’s Not Dead and Woodlawn, Concussion is preaching to the choir of the NFL indifferent.
As a fellow who’s not particularly invested in, and often morally upset by the sport of football, I found the heavy-handedness of the film to be uncomfortable. The story at hand is valuable and scandalous, but the methods used to relay its importance come across as manipulative and borderline coercive. Instead of giving any one of the doomed NFL players an arc before their passing, we’re given flashes of family photos, moments with their children, or videos of old plays. The truth is that for the sake of screen time, we don’t have any reason to care about the players outside of the terrible circumstances of their deaths. This film relies on raw emotional appeal to develop the ideas and characters this film is claiming to champion. It’s a cheap tactic and for more skeptical viewers, it’s an undeniable deal breaker in making a hard case against the NFL’s lack of honesty.
The movie unwittingly undermines the overwhelming facts and research this film is based on by spinning a yarn that takes shortcuts for the sake of emotional appeal and shock value. What could have been a bonafide challenge driven by an impassioned researcher dedicated to his cause is shortchanged in favor of a more traditional bit of over-sentimentalized sports drama.
Concussion is the first of what will likely be many NFL conspiracy films thanks to the popularity of the sport and overall it makes a decent start. What it lacks in its presentation and delivery it makes up for with Will Smith’s Bennet Omalu. It may not be the touchdown NFL cynics need to support their argument, but it brings enough to the table to add to the more meaningful conversation about football and the American obsession with its outrageous violence.