Directed by Peter Landesman
With a thrilling sense of urgency and an impeccable relevance, “Concussion” may be the most important sports movie of this generation. Covering a span of about ten years, starting in 2002, “Concussion” chronicles the important discovery made my Dr. Benett Omalu (Will Smith), a Nigerian-born forensic pathologist in Pittsburgh. While looking at the brain of Steelers football legend Mike Webster (David Morse), who died of cardiac arrest at the age of 50 after years of depression, Dr. Omalu discovered that his mental instability may have been caused by a series of concussions. He called it Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. He found favor easily enough within the medical community, who couldn’t dispute the facts Dr. Omalu and coroner Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks) brought forth. But NFL officials didn’t want to hear it. They threatened Dr. Omalu’s career with accusations of fraud. Some die-hard fans threatened his life, and that of his wife Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). But Dr. Omalu’s traditional family name translates to “If you know, come forth and speak.” So he spoke until they listened.
Oscar buzz surrounding Will Smith’s performance, at least at the time I’m writing this, is minimal. He’s on Top 10 lists, but only a few seem to think he’s a viable Academy Award nominee. I guess I’m one of the few. The recent Golden Globe nomination he received should help. Plus, Smith gives far and away his best performance since his last Oscar nomination, for “The Pursuit of Happyness.” In “Concussion,” like then, Smith puts so much heart into his role that it looks and feels personal to him. It even feels personal to us. It’ll make you mad. “Concussion” is a fiery statement to the National Football League. Hours before I watched “Concussion,” the NFL held a health-related conference call that was mandatory for all 1,500+ players. Some wonder if “Concussion” had something to do with it. But Smith has support from a seriously good Alec Baldwin, whose work in last year’s “Still Alice” reminded us of his ability to make us laugh and cry. As the ill-fated “Iron” Mike Webster, Morse nails it. Too often, mental illness is overacted or simply misguided, but Morse plays it perfectly.
A smart script, written by director Peter Landesman (“Parkland”), is stuffed with easily digestible statistics that only help to inform us why “Concussion” is so important. It’s the new “Moneyball,” but more compelling. And more crucial. Plus, 8-time Oscar-nominated composer James Newton Howard pushes the narrative forward with his tense, looming score.
“Concussion” couldn’t be timelier. The NFL has done relatively little to fix the problem with concussions. Now, thankfully, much of the public is on Dr. Omalu’s side. But the game-changers, the administrators and commissioner, are still wary. And some fans still argue that rule changes make the game weaker, less “manly.” “Concussion” needed to release right now. But will it do anything? Consider “Concussion” a movie Hail Mary. Hopefully it gets the point across.