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Overall Rating

Awesome: 0%
Worth A Look: 6.25%
Average: 0%
Pretty Bad81.25%
Total Crap: 12.5%

2 reviews, 4 user ratings

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Concussion (2015)
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by Brett Gallman

"Punts on a chance to make a bold statement."
2 stars

There’s a moment in “Concussion” when Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) is warned against going to war with the NFL since they practically own a day of the week (“the one the church used to own,” his supervisor pointedly reminds him). It would seem that everyone involved with making the film took this particular exchange to heart since “Concussion” practically tiptoes around its weighty issues in the most non-confrontational manner possible in order to appease the boogeyman it looks to expose.

At times, director Peter Landesman and company aren’t even convinced that it’s their place to uncover the NFL’s shameful, blasé treatment of head-related trauma suffered by players on its fields. Certainly, the title implies that this should be the case, as does its early interest in the tragic fallout for those gladiators that have long retired from the gridiron arena. Early sequences capture the intense, manic existence of these former players, and it’s the rare time “Concussion” feels vital—you sense that it wants to tell these harrowing stories and put dramatized human faces to recent headlines.

However, whenever the situation becomes too perilous, the film reassures its audience with the generally more comforting story surrounding Omalu’s pursuit of the American Dream. Introduced as a hyper-educated eccentric who speaks to the corpses he’s charged with examining as a forensic pathologist, Omalu isn’t a character so much as he’s a fully formed cliché put on tracks to hit every obligatory beat. Included in his stock tale is the introduction of the young woman (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) whose sole function is to highlight Omalu’s eccentricities (he doesn’t watch TV!), become a love interest, and essentially serve as a decoration in the nice house he dreams of buying. Considering the other half of the film is concerned with men prone to fits of violent rage that cause them to lash out at their own bodies (one former player pulls his own teeth out, only to super glue them back in) and their families, Omalu’s story functions as reassurance: “don’t worry,” the film insists, “it’s not all bad.”

It’s not that Omalu’s inspiring tale as an immigrant isn’t valid or even unwelcome (it’s as relevant to recent headlines as the concussion drama often lingering on the sidelines here); rather, it functions awkwardly since Landesman never figures out how to weave it into the larger battle with the NFL. Is “Concussion” more concerned with lionizing the man who discovered a degenerative brain condition or is it more interested in documenting the NFL’s ghastly reaction to it? It’s often hard to tell, and you’re left with a movie that splits the difference: it wants you to know that football can be a dangerous, barbaric sport, but it also would have you know that Omalu’s tale is uplifting and inspiring.

Plus, it should be noted that even he, an immigrant with little experience with the game, must acknowledge that there’s a beauty and a grace to football. At best, “Concussion” depicts him as someone who tries to punch at the NFL with kids’ gloves despite his frequent displays of outrage. You sense that there should be more of that indignation directed somewhere, be it towards the NFL or even the society that’s turned a blind eye towards the obvious for the sake of enjoying a glorified bloodsport on a weekly basis. Simply put, “Concussion” should be a much angrier film, or at least one with more conviction for its cause.

This film can’t even bother to properly portray the NFL as much of a villain at all: Luke Wilson is wasted as commissioner Roger Goodell, not to mention hilariously miscast to the point of inspiring conspiracy: did they cast someone who looks so unlike the actual Goodell to avoid incurring his wrath? For the most part, “Concussion” represents the NFL as a collection of shady board room meetings and hushed, ominous whispers from those who have witnessed their negligence, thus reducing the league to a vague antagonist. It’s hard to be even a mustache-twirling villain when you don’t really have a face.

If Landesman bothered with condemning the league, a cartoonish depiction would fit well enough since the rest of the film is a broadly sketched melodrama, one that only demands unfussy performances from most of its actors. To his credit, Smith continues to stretch beyond the blockbuster persona he’s refined over two decades, as he trades in that bombast for a more reserved, quiet role. Omalu’s scripted depiction actually seems like a tricky proposition since Smith has to straddle the line between irritating and heroic as the insistent genius; you could see a lesser actor allowing it to get away from him, but Smith stays on the right side of the line throughout, imbuing Omalu with an affable dignity through small moments. Even at his most indignant, Smith’s Omalu retains a stoic intensity that serves the biopic portion of the story well.

Omalu is not exactly nuanced as the film’s messiah figure, but Smith at least provides some illusion that he is, something that can’t be said for Albert Brooks, Alec Baldwin, or Mbatha-Raw, all of whom are support in every sense of the word. Their presence is appreciated much in the way one appreciates nice fixtures in a half-decent building: you’re grateful that they’re here to class up this glorified TV-movie-of-the-week, but you can’t help but think they’re not fulfilling their potential.

Some brief moments hint that “Concussion” will rise above its stuffy, predictable trappings, particularly when it threatens to actually become a conspiratorial thriller. In a rare instance of actual confrontation, it reveals some of the NFL’s shady, strong-arming tactics (with the United States government acting on its behalf, no less), leading one to assume it might finally bother to put up an actual fight and instill the audience with something beyond mild guilt for its role in consuming this sport. A decade later, we recoil in horror at now-defunct ESPN segments that reveled in players being “jacked up” by brutal, head-hunting hits.

I wonder, though, how many of us have completely sworn off the sport? “Concussion” presents that as the NFL’s most apocalyptic scenario, yet it only reconfirms the absurdity of that possibility. Not only does it do very little to incite anger, but it practically insists that football is woven into the fabric of America. For better or worse, it is our beautiful game, one that will unfold on practice fields from small town high schools to multi-million dollar stadiums. It will persist despite whatever guilt we may feel, and the NFL will endure even in the face of a film ostensibly designed to indict it. You only have to look as far as “Concussion” itself to realize this, as it offers well-meaning platitudes about the American Dream, all while ignoring one of its nightmares.

As a football fan, it’s a deeply troubling proposition, and it’s one I’ve been wrestling with for a few years now. When you’re born in the south, gridiron lines might as well be intertwined in your DNA. Saturday is our holy day, reserved for watching unpaid players put themselves through physical rigor for our amusement. Since seeing “Concussion,” I have watched nearly every bowl game offered up by the NCAA for the past week, with all of these concerns lingering nebulously in the back of my mind. Stretches where the film waxes poetic about the game’s beauty are there, too, however, and the realization that we’re stuck with football and the NFL (for better or worse) is its most honest, resonant moment.

It has no answers for how to balance this, though, so it throws its hands up and coos into the audience’s ears with comforting title cards regarding everyone’s fates, including the NFL’s massive lawsuit settlement with former players suffering from CTE. Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that “Concussion” is in a hurry to assuage of concerns surrounding a massive corporation. In this manner, it’s fair to say Bennet Omalu is fighting with kids’ gloves and boxing with god.

From what I can gather, distributor Sony Pictures isn’t an official partner of the NFL, but “Concussion” feels like it’s been crafted with the knowledge that they could be in the future. This is the nice, safe version of what should be an incendiary, brutal exposé. Unwittingly, Landesman and Sony have done their part to “protect the shield,” which doesn’t even suffer so much of a dent in the wake of “Concussion.”

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originally posted: 12/29/15 18:48:51
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 AFI Film Festival For more in the 2015 AFI Film Fest series, click here.

User Comments

8/15/17 Luisa Great film, underrated. Great acting from Will Smith. 4 stars
1/05/16 FireWithFire AND SO IS THIS BLOODY MOVIE ! ! ! ! !. 1 stars
12/28/15 mr.mike Will Smith is a bloody load of old rubbish. 1 stars
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  25-Dec-2015 (PG-13)
  DVD: 29-Mar-2016


  DVD: 29-Mar-2016

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