Concussion joins the small collection of investigative films arriving at the end of 2015, with Spotlight and Truth and the German picture Labyrinth of Lies. This one might actually move the needle on its subject. The true story chronicled here looks at Dr. Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian-born forensic pathologist who established a connection between football and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE. That research has already led to changes in NFL rules and increased scrutiny of former players. All those shots to the head, all those concussions—acknowledged or, frequently, not—have created a class of ex-players struggling with depression, erratic behavior, and memory loss.
The film casts Will Smith as Omalu, a gentle but determined soul working in a pathology lab in Pittsburgh. That’s how he gets a look at the brain of former Steeler Mike Webster (played, hauntingly, by David Morse), who died at age 50 in 2002. From there, Omalu faces an obstacle course erected by the National Football League, which comes to resemble Big Tobacco in its dogged attempts to deny something that is increasingly obvious: A career in football is a deadly gamble. Writer/director Peter Landesman takes a nicely low-key approach to some of this, but the subplots feel like Hollywood string-pulling: The shy Omalu takes in a fellow immigrant (the splendid Gugu Mbatha-Raw, from Beyond the Lights) and slowly falls for her, while the NFL’s flunkies apparently wage a campaign of bullying and intimidation against him.
The film is respectable to the point of stuffiness. Even Will Smith’s effortless movie-star charisma can’t enliven his saintly character (nor do Albert Brooks or Alec Baldwin, as sympathetic doctors, generate much liveliness). Concussion has one interesting running theme—that America has stopped being the place of fulfilling dreams, for immigrants or others. When that disenchanted mantra keeps getting repeated in a wide-release picture starring Will Smith, something may really be up.
But I wish the film had pursued its story’s other implication, the way we’d all rather embrace fantasy than face reality—this is, after all, a movie about science denial, that maddeningly timely subject. This extends not just to the NFL’s attempts to sidestep CTE data but to fandom as well. I’m a lifelong football fan, but the CTE stuff has at times made me queasy while watching the Seahawks flying around the field. On that score, it’ll be interesting to see whether people actually turn out to see this bearer of bad holiday tidings.