Written and Directed by Peter Landesman
The current landscape of professional football is a far cry from a player’s safety standpoint than it was even 10 years ago. Football is easily the most popular sport in America, fueled by exciting play, violent action, and the inclusion of not only sports betting, but also and perhaps especially fantasy sports, which have attracted millions to the game. But we have seen over the years the toll the game takes on player’s bodies, seen and unseen. NFL players have aches, pains and deformities from their playing careers, but in recent years there has been a vast exploration of the toll concussions and head injuries have caused on the game. There was a point when all this research was breaking when I didn’t think the sport could survive long term. Rules changes and other considerations have perhaps changed my mind, but there is no denying just how violent football has been in the past, and continues to be today, regardless of safety improvements.
Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) was an immigrant doctor living in Pittsburgh and working in the city morgue, conducting thorough autopsies when the body of famed Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster came across his path. A seemingly young, healthy veteran of the league, who had been driven to a madness that couldn’t be explained. When more ex-football players starting turning up dead due to suicide and other mentally related causes of death, Omalu took his findings to an ex-Steelers doc (Alec Baldwin). When his findings of a brain trauma injury caused by football, CTE, Omalu became public enemy #1 of not only the NFL, but fans of the game around the country. But Omalu did not hate football, he just saw what everyone else had been denying: that it was killing those who played it at far too young an age.
Seeing a story like this one unfolds is often frustrating, for many reasons, but specifically to this marathon due to its effects on the game of football. I started this film marathon because I love the game of football, so anything that strikes a black mark on the game is troublesome, but at the same time, this is not the type of scandal you can ignore and sweep beneath the rug. And that the NFL attempted to hide this great risk from its employee base is pretty incredible, especially when you consider that today in 2020, the game is still just as popular as ever, even when the game faces the same issues. Any safety rules and considerations that have been made have certainly helped, but many of them are motivated simply by optics. My relationship with the game remains tentative, in that I enjoy it a great deal, and play in many fantasy football leagues, but I still know about the games dangers and dirty little secrets.
As for the movie, which itself is not a documentary, it works largely as a vehicle for its star Will Smith, whose central performance helps carry an investigative thriller type narrative. As the filmmakers focus on the chase of the truth, the righteous outcome of the deaths of these famed players, Omalu’s drive, passion and compassion come through Smith’s performance. It morphs into a fairly standard procedural type of film, exploring this process with little pizzaz or enhanced sense of drama, but the story itself is entertaining enough to sustain the runtime, even if the romance story with Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s character feels very tacked on. Mbatha-Raw is good here too, and I’m sure the character was important to the story of the real life Omalu, but here her character adds little to the main narrative.
After a series of movies lauding the actions and careers of some of football’s beloved heroes, and done so in fairly generic bio-pic manners, Concussion is a breath of fresh air, even if it focuses on the darker aspects of the game. It follows a different path, and does so in an average way, but it also explores an element of the game that the films of the rest of the marathon have either largely ignored or shown as proof of the toughness of the players (all of the characters we remember playing hero playing through the torments of injury). But Concussion also marks a, at least temporary, freeze in the success of the football movie, as no other high profile movies have been released in the genre since, a full 5 years, despite the sport’s continued popularity. Did Concussion ruin the genre, or did concussions?