In Concussion, Will Smith gives it his all as Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian forensic pathologist working in Pittsburgh who discovered that retired NFL players were suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative disease that can be caused by head trauma. Omalu’s findings put him on a collision course with the NFL, which refused to believe and in some cases suppressed anything suggesting football players’ brains were in any kind of danger.
It’s an admirable story around which to build a medical drama. The hypereducated, brilliant Omalu is a fascinating character, the kind of person who speaks to corpses while autopsying their bodies: “Okay, Rachel, I need your help,” he says, gently, to one dead woman on a slab in his morgue. “We are in this together. Please help me find out what happened to you.” After a series of retired, troubled NFL players take their own lives and wind up on Omalu’s table, he studies their brains to find out what happened, even though there’s pressure on him to leave things be — ostensibly because these men are all local heroes. But Omalu doesn’t let things go. Originally from Nigeria, he wants to be an American, and his earnestness and seriousness of purpose are organic parts of his dream; in this country, he says, “you have to be the best version of yourself.”
The film treats this sentiment with the appropriate dose of bitter irony. “What the hell did you think they were going to do? Thank you?” asks Albert Brooks’s gruff, forthright head coroner Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks) after the NFL responds to Omalu’s findings with a smear campaign. “Yes!” Omalu replies, baffled. “I see,” Wecht responds, suddenly realizing what’s going on. “You think you’re being a good American!” What Omalu doesn’t realize, he says, is that we live in a country where cities and states will spend millions on football stadiums even as they’re firing teachers and closing down schools. Why should he bother being his best self when the rest of us are too busy being our worst selves?
There’s a lot of good stuff here, but the movie often seems more interested in ennobling rather than dramatizing. Writer-director Peter Landsman is himself a veteran journalist, but one wonders if he felt the particulars of Omalu’s story were too dry to put on film without some embellishment. He might even be right: Some working out of emotional journeys and clarifying of character goals is almost always necessary to tell these tales. But the script goes beyond that and turns practically everything into a big, teachable moment, with speeches and monologues and portentous statements of purpose.
This sort of material can be done right. I was constantly reminded of the nose-to-the-grindstone procedural of Spotlight, and its steady, patient buildup of facts; when it broke out into speeches at the end, it had a cumulative power. Here, the constant drumbeat of Big, Teachable Moments starts early and never lets up. This has the adverse (and opposite) effect of cheapening the drama: Our bullshit detectors start to go off, and we begin to wonder if the real-life story might not stand on its own. By the end, we’re drowning in solemnity.
Still, Smith keeps us watching. This most likable and effervescent of movie stars can do melancholy well when he wants to, and his haunted performance here feels right (“I think more about people dying than I do about people living,” he says at one point), while also letting just enough of his natural charisma peek through. We sense that this is a serious, careful, practical man — and we like him. And Gugu Mbatha-Raw, playing a recent Kenyan émigré from Omalu’s church who falls quietly in love with and eventually marries him, might be even better, enhancing a standard-issue love-interest role with grace and warmth. “You need to touch somebody alive now and again,” Omalu is told early on in the film; the easy contrast here would be for Mbatha-Raw to give an almost bubbly, big performance, but it’s to her and Landsman’s credit that they allow the character to maintain a kind of quiet, calm dignity, all without letting her slip into pained gravitas. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the rest of the film.