Back in the 1960s, Dr Bennett Umalu, a brilliant neuropathologist performed the autopsy on a retired football player Mike Webster. Webster died at the age of 50 after battling dementia and depression. As most social media headlines go, what happened next would blow Dr Umalu’s mind. This set off a series of events that lead to the findings of brain damage and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, something which was supposedly confined to the boxing world, in National Football League players. After painstaking research, and being dismissed as a “quack” by the NFL, Umalu found out what most others had not considered; the idea that repeated banging of heads in a sport might cause head injury.
Concussion is the usual David vs Goliath tale with the sole exception that David hardly makes a dent in the reputation of Goliath, and Goliath presently earns around $620 million in revenue from the Super Bowl alone. After a long hiatus from quality movies, Will Smith plays a convincing role. Having excelled in The Pursuit of Happiness, Seven Pounds, Smith returns to doing what he does best; tugging at heartstrings while being the quintessential nice soft-spoken guy with very regularly watery eyes. From the perspective of someone with little idea of how a Nigerian accent sounds, he seems to have done a good job of imitating it. Bennet Omalu has showered praises on Smith stating that Smith “nailed it” with his performance, and that he saw a lot of himself in Smith. Then again, who amongst us wouldn’t want to see ourselves in a good looking, 6 ft 2-inch specimen of a man. Physically, Smith does not seem to be an adequate fit for the role as Umalu was a much shorter and rounder shaped individual. Concussion has been in the news for not being nominated for even one Oscar, even though it stays in line with the barrage of inspirational, feel-good fare that is nominated for best picture at the Oscars. At the very least, a Best Actor nomination would have been well deserved. Maybe a CGI bear fight or sub-zero conditions on set would have done the trick.
The idea of “being American” is recurrent throughout the course of the movie. Holes are poked into the idea of the greatness of America that is sold to the world, while ironically, its protagonist pursues the same goal with single-minded intent. As Omalu states in the film, “All I wanted was to be American.”
English stage and film actress, Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Omalu’s wife Prema Mutiso does a fine job as the anchor that holds him steady. Choosing to focus on other aspects of his life, her character is overshadowed. Alec Baldwin, possibly the founding father of the modern day pout, as Dr Julian Bailes lends credible support to Smith and adds much needed subtlety to the movie, in the face of the intermittently dramatic performance of Smith.
Peter Landesman, formerly a novelist, painter, investigative journalist is the director and writer behind the movie. Previously having worked on little known works such as Kill the Messenger, and Trade, he was plucked by producer Ridley Scott, who chose him to direct this project. He directs the ship well, but falters ever so often.
Concussion does not have much to offer cinematically, as the material is limited in scope. The intent is noble, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. The story could’ve been much more impactful and concise in the form of an hour-long documentary. Smith delivers a fine performance as expected, but is let down by the narrative direction the film takes. Every now and then as the pace begins to slow, the proceedings creep up on the viewer and pull one back in by the collar.
However, such moments are few and far between. Due to minimal focus on his personal life, and almost exclusive on the professional side of things, it becomes hard to connect with the protagonist. Although, the lack of connect might be due to the subject matter. Football, specifically the American kind finds little appeal in this part of the world, and it is likely that the film might not generate much interest.