The NFL had plenty of explaining to do before Dr. Bennet Omalu's breakthrough research.
That wasn’t good enough for “Concussion.” The movie doesn’t stick to the frightening facts behind head trauma in the NFL. It wields a broad, cartoonish brush to make this David vs. Goliath saga even more incredulous than it actually was.
That’s no way to influence impressionable football fans. It also waters down a compelling biography given grit and grace by Will Smith.
So when he treats a former Pittsburgh Steelers legend (David Morse) he uncovers a brain condition similar to other gridiron greats. The doctor keeps digging, which alienates some colleagues and soon catches the NFL’s attention.
Dr. Omalu may have discovered CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) in NFL veterans, but spreading the word about the condition may require a Hail Mary pass. Maybe three.
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No one wants to strip screenwriters of their artistic license, but the minds behind “Concussion” pile on the Hollywood conventions so high viewers might gain a measure of sympathy for the NFL suits.
Those plotting against the good doctor are either cruel or downright sinister. The National Football League comes off like a Mafia-style outfit with no regard for human decency. Did Dr. Omalu’s wife suffer a serious health scare due to a mysterious figure tailing her car? Did their family receive threatening phone calls?
And what about the other doctors doing head trauma research? We’re made to believe Dr. Omalu’s work is the only significant research on the subject.
Smith is terrific here, conveying the Nigerian doctor’s decorum and a love of country. Some people won’t even call Dr. Omalu by his rightful title, even though his list of credentials would put most academics to shame. He shrugs off their insults without losing his good nature. It’s a beautiful nod to the immigrant experience.
His character work in the first act gets gang tackled soon enough.
Alec Baldwin, whose southern drawl comes and goes like a spring breeze, turns in one of his weakest roles as a sports doctor helping Dr. Omalu’s cause. Baldwin still gets treated better than Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who plays Smith’s love interest. She’s barely acknowledged as a three-dimensional soul once the two connect.
She’s idealized just like Smith’s doctor, but she’s given nothing to do save bolster his decency. The pair also have zero chemistry.
“Concussion” openly declares playing in the NFL is hazardous to your health, turning violent tackles into exclamation points. Lost in the discussion — the potential damage done during a player’s high school and football career, the impact of pain relievers on players, potential substance abuse issues and more.
Transforming the NFL to make players safer is a serious matter, one that demands a far more comprehensive hearing than what “Concussion” delivers.