American football is currently in the midst of an existential crisis. Awareness of the impact of head injuries casts an increasingly long shadow on America's most popular sport. What it means to play or support the game is an increasingly morally fraught question.
Concussion wades into this conversation scared to say too much of anything. Starring Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian-born Pittsburgh coroner who first put the puzzle pieces together on the impact that football has on the brain, Concussion follows his journey to convince the world of the hazards that the aggregation of routine football plays can pose to its players.
But Concussion is not just a football movie crossed with a medical procedural. It crowbars in an unconvincing love story and a villainous mid-level coroner played by Mike O'Malley (!?), and then transposes the structure of an immigrant's tale on top of its already overstuffed structure.
The film also takes time to center Omalu's outsider status and religious background. This is the strongest move the film makes; showing American football through an outsider's eyes is an opportunity for an audience to think about the violence of the game afresh. Religion's intersection with athletics is also interesting (which is on my mind as a result of Taffy Brodesser-Akner's excellent ESPN profile on Russell Wilson), especially when the man with the strongest faith in this film is also a man of science. Concussion also largely avoids employing a white-savior narrative—for better and worse, this is Omalu's story.
However, aside from who the film chooses to give a voice to, the best thing that can be said about Concussion is that it fails as entertainment. Almost subversively so. The storytelling lacks drive, the film has no sense of time or rhythm, and the screenplay is overly reliant on ham-fisted monologues to advance the plot. Also, the film's attempts to build toward a catharsis are undercut repeatedly by the film's aggressive unrelatability. Omalu's dark night of the soul moment comes when he trashes his own dream McMansion. He compares paint jobs on his Mercedes with a collaborator. When his wife reveals that she was raped upon coming to America, her story is immediately glossed over. This is especially strange given that the film wants to be an immigrant story. What it is to be newly American is often brought up in the text of the film but bulldozed over in its imagery.
The end result is a film without room for catharsis. (Spoiler Alert) The good guy did it: He challenged the evil structure of power, grew, and triumphed. But Omalu's success feels less than triumphant, because the soft pedaled middle road that it takes both undercuts the message of the film and reminds the viewer that this is a film that was run past the NFL, and exists at their discretion.
Frankly, if pressure from the NFL is what neutered this film, that was a mistake on their part. Genuine catharsis is what the NFL should want. I walked out of this movie unsatisfied, wanting to know more. The film never transcends its source material, Jeanne Marie Laskas's profile on Bennet Omalu, but it left a lingering bad taste in my mouth that pushed me to reread the story. I highly recommend it. It's a well-told take on this important question. Concussion, sadly, is not.