Cinematically speaking, 2015 may go down as the year of the villain. Take a look at Johnny Depp’s monstrous Whitey Bulger in Black Mass, Paul Giamatti in Love & Mercy, and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The movies of 2015 are filled with the kind of bad guys audiences love to hate. And to this rogues’ gallery, we now add Luke Wilson as controversial NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in the powerful new sports drama Concussion.
Inspired by a GQ exposé, Concussion tells the gripping true story of Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian-American forensic pathologist whose autopsy of former Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster uncovered severe brain damage caused by years of repeated blows on the field. Noticing identical damage in other deceased players, Dr. Omalu, along with fellow neurologists, coroners, and a former Steelers team doctor, published a paper on his findings titled “Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a National Football League Player.”
The film chronicles Dr. Omalu’s efforts to draw attention to the problem, while being thwarted at every turn by the all-powerful NFL, whose SPECTRE-like influence reaches to the highest levels of government.
Combining the forensic detective plot of an above-average CSI episode with a nuanced character study, Concussion’s righteous anger makes up for what it occasionally lacks in focus. Two-time Oscar nominee Will Smith should expect to be nominated once again for his heartfelt performance as the crusading Dr. Omalu. Capturing the pathologist’s devotion to God as well as to science, Smith lends an air of gentle humor to the role, which helps to humanize a character who appears a bit too noble at times. Between his convincing Nigerian accent and solemn dignity, it’s hard to believe that this is the same actor whose ultra-cool confidence and sexy charm lent the con man comedy Focus so much spark last year.
Writer/director Peter Landesman, who was an investigative journalist with The New York Times magazine before turning to filmmaking, is at his best when documenting the steady accrual of scientific data that leads to the explosive CTE diagnosis. These medical sequences have a chilling intensity that propels the movie forward, whether we care about the subject of football or not. Later in the film, when Dr. Omalu’s reputation comes under attack and sinister vehicles begin following his wife’s car, Landesman expertly channels classic ‘70s conspiracy thrillers like Three Days of the Condor and The Conversation, giving Concussion a dose of well-crafted suspense just when it’s needed most.
The film is less successful when it deals with Dr. Omalu’s personal life. British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who was so dazzling in the 2014 romance Beyond the Lights, is somewhat wasted as Omalu’s Kenyan-born wife. Their relationship, while admittedly sweet, does little to advance the plot or deepen the characters. Instead, it merely offers Smith an opportunity to impart inspirational wisdom to a dewy-eyed ingenue. For a character who already borders on too saintly, their scenes together risk tipping the scales against him.
Sports fans who are concerned that the film might be anti-football propaganda need not worry. Despite the seriousness of the issue it deals with, Landesman gives Smith several memorable monologues in which Omalu praises the game’s inherent beauty and cultural importance. This isn’t an angry polemic against the sport, but a dramatic call to arms for the health and well-being of its players.
Nevertheless, the film’s depiction of the NFL’s willful ignorance to a crisis that is quite literally killing its athletes makes Concussion essential viewing. Landesman takes us behind the curtain of the National Football League’s inner chambers, revealing some of the most sinister executives and doctors this side of a John Grisham novel. Watching them manipulate facts, bury information and threaten anyone who gets in their way, all while ignoring the safety of their own players, is a lesson in outrage.
Chief among these nefarious executives is Roger Goodell. As played by Wilson, an actor equally adept at portraying both smarm and sincerity, Goodell emerges as the shadowy figurehead of a monolithic corporation which, according to the film, “owns a day of the week.” Though his role in the film is relatively small, the weight it carries is enormous. Coupled with the non-stop scandals that have plagued his recent tenure as Commissioner, this film just might be the straw that topples his Teflon career.
Ultimately, Concussion offers no easy answers to the tragedy of CTE, other than that alerting players to the dangers of football is a moral obligation. After viewing the film, if the sight of two athletes colliding head-on gives you new-found cause for concern, then Will Smith, Peter Landesman and the real life Dr. Omalu have done their jobs.