So, who would have thought that 20 years of consistently being hit on a football field would cause permanent neurological damage? It seems a no-brainer (apologies), but it took almost seven years for the NFL to publicly acknowledge that there might be something to Dr. Bennet Omalu’s research into CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). That’s the story of Concussion, which details how Omalu (a somewhat taciturn Smith) discovers and diagnoses the progressive brain injury, and how the powers that be attempted to paint him as a quack, lest his findings diminish the nobility of America’s most popular sport.
In 2002, Omalu was a forensic pathologist working in Pittsburgh. A Nigerian immigrant with eight advanced degrees, he is methodical if a bit eccentric, talking to the cadavers as he cuts them open, jamming to Teddy Pendergrass while doing his work. In other words, the usual. But when the body of NFL Hall-of-Famer Mike Webster (Morse) shows up, that gets the ball rolling. Dead at 50, Webster was suffering from acute intellectual impairment, depression, drug abuse, and a slew of other ailments. Omalu ends up paying out-of-pocket for additional brain scans that lead him to suspect this condition is widespread among NFL players. Enter friends and foes, as Omalu shares his research with former NFL doctor Julian Bailes (Baldwin), and goes up against the NFL’s top brass, who seek to smear his name and sully information that is implied they had known about for quite some time.
It’s a whistleblower narrative to be sure, and it could have been a very effective one at that, but the film is bogged down by trying to keep too many plates spinning. There’s the immigrant story of a man trying to realize the American dream, and a romantic subplot with Omalu’s now-wife Prema (Mbatha-Raw), whose presence conveniently answers audience questions and marks the passage of time (oh, she’s pregnant now?). Director Peter Landesman (Parkland) never quite gets these disparate threads to gel, and when the NFL finally admits that there may be a problem, the righteous indignation has been deflated like a New England Patriots football. Smith gives a solid, nuanced performance, and the story of his determined fight can be riveting at times, but too often the film gets sidetracked. If Concussion had focused on Omalu’s tireless efforts to expose CTE to the world, it would have been a powerful film. As it stands, it’s just second-string.
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