Tuesday, January 19, 2016

'Concussion' review

2015 was the year of movies that took on the system. The journalists of Spotlight attacked the Catholic Church with smarts and suspense to spare, while the outsiders of The Big Short kicked the bankers where it hurt. So with all of these great movies about taking on the establishment, it's disheartening and terribly disappointing to see a movie about a doctor fighting the corruption of the NFL with such a tame and dull perspective. A committed performance from Will Smith can't save this rote and uninteresting drama, which seems insistent on being a biting take on the NFL while being careful to not step on anybody's toes. It may try to convince you otherwise, but Concussion is absolutely toothless and unsatisfying. By trying to appease the NFL while deconstructing their practices, Concussion ends up being a misfire on every conceivable level.

Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) is a really, really smart guy. Omalu (and the movie) likes to emphasize that early and often. He has a seemingly endless amount of doctorates and is the man behind most of the autopsies in the city of Pittsburgh. Brilliant, but despised by his colleagues (mostly Mike O'Malley's Daniel Sullivan), the Nigerian immigrant Omalu is already faced with enormous challenges from the start. It only gets worse when he's tasked with the autopsy of Mike Webster (David Morse), a beloved football star and a Steelers icon. A normal autopsy turns life-changing when Omalu discovers something that nobody else has seen- the true effects of head trauma from the game of football.

With the help of Pittsburgh coroner Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), former Pittsburgh team doctor Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin) and many other esteemed doctors around the world (Eddie Marsan, Stephen Moyer and more), Omalu discovers chronic traumatic encephalopathy, also known as CTE. Excited by his discovery, Omalu eagerly publishes the information and shares it with the world and the NFL. Unfortunately, lots of people are not very interested in Omalu's discoveries. Met with hostility, death threats and sheer disregard from the National Football League, Omalu must find a way to convince Commissioner Roger Goodell (Luke Wilson) and the entire world that football poses a serious threat to the health of players.

Note to future filmmakers- if you're going to take on a corrupt organization, at least put your all into it. The major problem with Concussion is that it wants to have its cake and eat it too. It thinks that it can take on the NFL and all of their wrongdoings, but still emphasize over and over that football is a great game. The film describes football as this ethereal and near-spiritual experience for the players, all while simultaneously showing the ways that the men behind the curtain manipulated the facts for their own personal gain. This wishy-washy spirit ultimately crushes the movie when it gets to the hard facts, the damning information that will paint the NFL in a truly awful light.

I know that Will Smith and director Peter Landesman don't want to permanently ruin the reputation of the National Football League. That's not their goal here, and they've expressed that numerous times (despite Smith's insistence that he hasn't watched any football since making the movie). Unfortunately, safeness was the last thing that Concussion needed. As I've learned from many argumentation classes, it's really, truly difficult to justify an argument. On tests, they tell you that it's the absolute last thing that you want to do. Pick a side. Don't stand in the middle, because in the end, it's going to hurt your argument. Concussion's attitude of "Well, the NFL was horrible and despicable, but in the end, football's a beautiful game!" suffocates the movie. It needed a clear voice of anger and frustration. Not one of balance.

Concussion disappointed at the box office and was a critical miss, but none of the blame should go to star Will Smith. I've never been a hug fan of Smith myself and that's why I found myself very surprised here- he's sincerely terrific as Omalu in this film. Charismatic, resourceful and troubled, Smith creates a likable character that the audience can relate to. It would have been easy for Smith to mess up this performance and go way overboard, but he keeps it simple and restrained, benefiting the character along the way. He carries this entire film, even with strong help from a supporting cast that includes esteemed actors like Alec Baldwin, Albert Brooks, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and more. Smith should have definitely been considered seriously for an Oscar nomination this year.

The problem is the rest of the movie. Smith may be great, but Concussion is just a slog. The opening sets a nice tone and strikes a good balance and yet, it only goes downhill from there. Concussion feels sanitized and dull, never striking at its subject with intensity as I've already discussed. But even worse than that, it's filmed in an incredibly bland and uninteresting manner. The characters beyond Omalu are pretty thinly drawn, the themes are very muddled (is the movie about the NFL or one immigrant's disillusionment with the American dream?) and Landesman just doesn't have that ability to compel audiences with the camera. All of it adds up to a rather flat experience, one that doesn't have the narrative or entertainment impact that it should.

If you're a fan of Smith, you'll probably enjoy it for the performance from the Hollywood superstar. He's phenomenal in the film and I doubt that anybody can deny him that. But the movie just has nothing going for it beyond the central character. It's a long, lumbering fact-based drama that never manages to grab your attention or keep you in suspense. The story in Concussion needs to be told. It's important to know the danger that we put players in when they're playing a game that we all know and love. Football is an important American touchstone. Americans deserve to know about the corruption of the organization that runs it. Concussion just isn't the movie to do it.

THE FINAL GRADE:  C                                              (5.5/10)

Image Credits: Variety, Hollywood Reporter, Screen Rant, Joblo

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