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Entries in Concussion [2015] (1)

Friday
Dec252015

Concussion (2015)

Murkyball

Concussion is a metaphor in search of a movie. Will Smith plays Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Pittsburgh-based Nigerian immigrant and forensic pathologist who helped identify chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)--a form of brain damage not exclusive to pro footballers, but which has, in recent years, been attributed to erratic behavior, murder, and suicide among players. When Omalu co-authored a medical-journal study in 2005, the NFL pitted its considerable resources (including the news media and the federal government) against him and the team he worked with. By all rights, Concussion should be the pigskin version of Michael Mann's Big Tobacco drama, The Insider. Unfortunately, writer/director Peter Landesman's pinballing narrative is as hard to follow as a conversation with a late-stage CTE sufferer.

It's fitting that Concussion is based on a magazine article. The best exposés weave storylines into a thesis, reinforcing powerful data with equally powerful drama. Jeanne Marie Laskas' 2009 GQ piece, "Game Brain" (Concussion's source material), works largely because the author's short-burst-paragraph style gets readers in and out in twenty minutes, with a clear idea of the cast, cover-up, and consequences. Landesman's attempts to replicate this on film come off as unfocused rambling, especially for viewers* who A) don't know about football, B) don't care about football, or C) already assume that repeated blows to the head can only lead to bad things. The most entertaining part of Concussion isn't watching Smith do the single-tear stare-down with remorseless corporate goons; it's laughing incredulously at all the alleged medical professionals whose "Gee Whiz" reactions to football-related brain trauma made me wonder if those at the middle and highest levels of organized sports are really as dumb as the raving, shirtless-in-sub-zero-temps lunatics who buy their event tickets.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that all sports fans are dumb. I am saying that Concussion plays to the segment of sports fans who are. From the one-dimensional bean-counting bad guys to Will Smith's equally singular, aphorism-spouting wise African ("Need is not weak. Need is need."), Landesman turns a very real and very compelling news item into the kind of cookie-cutter awards-season drama that gives awards-season dramas a bad name. The "Well, duh" nature of the central conceit lends itself to a GQ piece. But stretched to two hours, with a hasty, time-jumping love story; at least four dead-end side-narratives; and an indecisive moral stance on football as a viable pasttime, Concussion is proof that not every story can be (or should be) adapted into a movie.

It's not all doom and gloom. David Morse gives a truly heartbreaking performance as former Pittsburgh Steeler Mike Webster, who died broke and crazy due to the effects of CTE. When Webster confronts his long-time friend/retired team doctor Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin, wearing a Louisiana accent so subtle it's distracting), there's a locomotive quality to the pair's physicality that makes the entire scene feel dangerous--as if Landesman had captured a rehearsal take in which Morse went too far. It's a genuine moment in a movie packed with false ones, such as Omalu asking cadavers to help him discover what killed them, or his beleaguered but saintly wife's (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) miscarriage following cinema's greatest false-flag car chase. Smith and Mbatha-Raw play these thankless roles with utter sincerity, but so did Mark Wahlberg when he begged forgiveness from a house plant in The Happening.

In a year when Spotlight and The Big Short plunged audiences headlong into Catholic sex scandals and housing-market swindles, Concussion comes off as, at best, a CSI two-parter. Like Moneyball, another film whose premise is far more compelling than its endless stats-chats, Landesman and company fail to make a case for their material beyond the anecdotal. Yes, the science of CTE is interesting. Yes, the NFL cover-up is grotesque. No, these aren't necessarily grounds for a feature film. Undeterred, Concussion batters the audience from every superfluous dramatic angle imaginable, until we're left in a daze of vaguely urgent images, with no idea of what the goal was or if it was reached, and by whom.

*Such as your not-so-humble reviewer, full disclosure.