If the years I’ve wasted following media and journalism have taught me anything it’s that everyone loves a good scandal. There’s always some tiny part of our brains that likes it when high ranking people or powerful organizations get caught in the crosshairs and shot down by their arrogance or wrongdoing. I’m guilty of it. You’re probably guilty of it too. It’s natural, don’t worry. There’s a kind of satisfaction that comes from comeuppance and it’s irresistible when it happens.
Unless, of course, it happens to a beloved and venerated organization so powerful that they figuratively own the collective consciousness of the entire nation for one day a week, four months of the year. Then, we all kind of turn our heads towards the sand and excuse it all away, refusing to acknowledge that we, in some way, might have been passive participants in a scandal that, while not criminal, is arguably immoral. That’s what happened with the NFL, and while there probably should have been a cry of outrage from the fans who fuel the massive corporation worth billions and billions of dollars, we chose, instead, to look the other way.
Concussion, the new movie from Peter Landesman (Parkland) had the potential to blow the doors of the whole enterprise wide open, becoming an exposé, of sorts, on the NFL’s knowledge, and subsequent cover up of their knowledge, that repeated blows to the head like the ones their employees take their entire careers (or, indeed, lives) could cause devastating, impossible to diagnose brain damage that finds its victims undergoing a complete loss of everything that makes them who and what they are. Instead of doing that, however, it merely cracks open the door and sheepishly pokes its head in and wonders if it might have a moment of your time.
It’s not a bad movie, really, so much as it’s underwhelming and uneven, despite some powerhouse performances from Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, and Albert Brooks. Concussion follows the work of Dr. Bennet Omalu (Smith) who was the first to discover the link between playing football and the brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) after former Steelers center Mike Webster (David Morse) died suddenly and tragically at the age of 50. Dr. Omalu published his findings in 2005 to scorn and derision from the NFL, who actively denied any links between their product (and, yes, sports is a product) and CTE and spent several years trying to discredit Omalu and his work.
This is the fight showcased in Concussion, and while it’s quite often an interesting and compelling film, it too often veers away from its core subject and weakens the entire narrative. The real story, Omalu, his work, his fight with the NFL, and the uncovering of evidence that the NFL knew about the dangers of repeated blows to the head (which I guess is sort of self-evident) and didn’t warn its players, is interesting and worthy of consideration—and yes, Concussion does get it into that. It also gets into the personal lives of Dr. Omalu and his wife which, while humanizing the story and adding a bit of drama, doesn’t really serve much of a narrative purpose and ultimately gets in the way of the real meat of the story.
Far from being the bombshell the blows the NFL wide open, however, Concussion plays it mostly safe. I suppose that’s always the danger of going up against one of the most beloved institutions of all time—you can’t really risk rocking the boat when you’re facing off with a group who stole the Sabbath from God. But safe sailing in calmish waters doesn’t make for compelling cinema either. It holds back when it should hold no punches; it’s sheepish when it ought to roar; it treads lightly when it needs to stomp heavily.
It does all this by framing the narrative as a biopic of Dr. Omalu, who is absolutely a man worthy of respect and admiration. At 34, he’d accomplished more than most of us will accomplish ever, and he absolutely destroys the argument that immigrants are lazy or unworthy. However it all feels like an opportunity lost. Most Americans either don’t know or don’t care about CTE or the NFL scandal, and Concussion had a brilliant opportunity to bring it fully to light. It does this, mostly, but the result is underwhelming. It’s not telling us much we didn’t know and it doesn’t frame its story in a way to win over the scoffers and the naysayers and the uncaring masses who’d rather not think about the damage their heroes might face sometime down the line after a lifetime of smashing their heads into other heads.
But maybe I shouldn’t have expected anything else. Maybe it’s my fault for wanting this to be greater than it was. I admit that, despite my problems with it, it’s still a decent, if not forgettable, film that will offer you plenty of sweet, sweet Oscar bait after your presents are opened and dinner has digested. In that regard, it’s watchable and appeals to a wide margin of people—there’s sports, there’s intrigue, there’s drama, there’s romance. It’s got something for everyone, that’s for sure. It’s just never anything as powerful as there ought to have been.
Concussion opens everywhere on Christmas Day.