'Concussion': AFI Fest Review

Football takes a hit in this timely, potent expose.

Will Smith stars as the Nigerian-born doctor who helped identify the brain damage afflicting many pro football players.

Movies "torn from the headlines" were once a Hollywood staple, going back to the gangster films of the 1930s. But in recent years, as projects take longer and longer to come to fruition and as studios grow more cautious, it’s rare to find a truly timely, topical drama. Concussion is one of the exceptions. It dramatizes a crisis that is still making headlines today: the dangers of serious brain damage caused by the violent collisions of pro football. The NFL fought to bury the evidence of these medical perils, and the league can’t be happy about a high-profile movie bringing the issues into the limelight. Credit should go to producer Ridley Scott and to the executives who backed the movie, keeping alive a tradition of muckraking that once did Hollywood proud. Although the film is imperfect, it has unmistakable urgency, and Will Smith’s star power should ensure healthy box office returns.

Smith plays Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian-born pathologist working in Pittsburgh, who investigates the untimely death of former Steelers star Mike Webster. Omalu suspects a connection between all the blows to the head that Webster suffered and the dementia that led to his death. As he looks into the deaths of other players, Omalu identifies a brain trauma called CTE that is disturbingly widespread. NFL doctors and club owners try to bury his findings, but eventually Omalu finds allies who help him to publicize the truth.

This summary may make the film sound like an academic paper, but it’s thoroughly engrossing and entertaining. Director Peter Landesman worked as a journalist before moving into filmmaking, and he has a sense of how to grab an audience. He also showed in his underrated film, Parkland, a drama about the Kennedy assassination, that he has a real gift in drawing strong performances from a large cast.

Under Landesman’s guidance, Smith transforms himself impressively. He handles the accent without any fuss, and he submerges his usual wise-guy persona into the character of this slightly stiff and arrogant doctor. Smith doesn’t idealize Omalu; we can see why the dogged, self-assured man can anger his colleagues. The fact that Omalu knew nothing about football probably made him the ideal person to puncture one of America’s sacred cows.

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Gugu Mbatha-Raw, the star of Belle and Beyond the Lights, gives a charming performance in what might have been a stock role as the hero’s supportive wife. Prema never seems cowed by her brilliant husband; she’s willing to stand up to him and challenge him. Alec Baldwin has a large role as the former Steelers doctor who becomes Omalu’s ally, and although Baldwin’s Southern accent wobbles, he plays his sympathetic role forcefully. Albert Brooks as Omalu’s cynical mentor comes close to stealing the movie.

But what’s most impressive about Landesman’s work is that he also allows actors who only have a scene or two to register vividly. David Morse is unrecognizable in his few scenes as Webster, but he works from the inside out and in just a few moments makes us understand the ravages that the game has wrought on this once mighty warrior. Eddie Marsan, Arliss Howard and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje also make the most of just a few moments of screen time to create characters who come fully alive. Although Smith is the star of the film, this is a true ensemble movie, in which every performer enriches the tapestry.

As a piece of filmmaking, Concussion is competent but not inspired. The brief flashes of violence on the football field make their point in a rather pro forma way; they don’t quite achieve the necessary impact. James Newton Howard’s score is sometimes effective and sometimes bombastic. On the other hand, Oscar winning editor William Goldenberg (Argo) helps keep the film hurtling forward. In the end, this film is vital in uncovering a hazard that was kept hidden for far too long. At last the secret is out, and Landesman and his fine cast will help to keep the conversation going.

Read more 'Concussion' Director Talks Casting Will Smith and Having "Absolutely No Communication" With NFL (Q&A)

Cast: Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Albert Brooks, David Morse, Arliss Howard, Luke Wilson, Eddie Marsan, Paul Reiser

Director-screenwriter: Peter Landesman

Based on the article by Jeanne Marie Laskas

Producers: Ridley Scott, Giannina Scott, David Wolthoff, Larry Shuman, Elizabeth Cantillon

Executive producers: Michael Schaefer, David Crockett, Ben Waisbren, Bruce Berman, Greg Basser

Director of photography: Salvatore Totino

Production designer: David Crank

Costume designer: Dayna Pink

Editor: William Goldenberg

Music: James Newton Howard

Rated PG-13, 121 minutes