On Tuesday, ESPN’s Outside the Lines reported that the National Football League was withdrawing part of what had been previously described as an “unrestricted gift” to the National Institutes of Health to study the link between football and brain disease because the league disapproved of the doctor leading the study, a world-renowned researcher who’s been critical of the league in the past.* It’s a stunning and newly disgraceful development for a league that’s spent the past several years beset by PR disasters, and you’d think the timing would never be more right for the Christmas Day release of Concussion, a film about the early days of the NFL’s chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) crisis starring Will Smith as the pathbreaking Nigerian-born neuropathologist Bennet Omalu.
You’d think this until you actually watched Concussion, because Concussion is a bad movie, in weird and confused but rarely interesting ways. Written and directed by ex-journalist Peter Landesman and based on a great 2009 GQ article by Jeanne Marie Laskas, Concussion is a movie that knows exactly what it’s about but doesn’t seem to understand why it’s about it, or for whom or what reason it exists. If its goal is simply to present history, it does a lousy job of this; Slate’s Daniel Engber has already pointed out a number of the film’s factual inaccuracies. And if its job is to offer a withering indictment of football, it ultimately does a lousy job of this, too. It’s a movie that wants to have its cake, eat it too, and then lecture us about how bad the cake is while its mouth is still full.
Concussion opens in Pittsburgh, where in 2002, a 34-year-old Dr. Omalu discovers CTE, a degenerative brain disease, in the recently deceased Hall of Fame Steelers center Mike Webster, triggering what would come to be colloquially known as the league’s concussion crisis. (Concussion strongly implies that Omalu both discovered and named the disease itself, neither of which is true.) From there Concussion unfolds as part medical drama, part conspiracy thriller—the NFL and assorted dark football-loving forces will stop at nothing to suppress and discredit Omalu’s research—and part melting-pot story, as the fish-out-of-water Omalu manages to teach a whole bunch of Americans about the true meaning of America.
Concussion telegraphs its empty signifiers of morality and moral outrage with the relentlessness of an interception-prone quarterback. Characters soliloquize to each other about the greatness of God and country, and how they (and we!) have let down both. Nearly every scene is drenched in invasive underscoring, and science is treated like magic—the film employs the sort of CGI microscope action you expect from a CSI episode. Omalu is such a saintly presence from the beginning of the film that his discovery of CTE comes off as less an act of intellectual inquiry than divine revelation—he doesn’t find it because he’s a good doctor, but because he’s a good person. This is both bad science and bad storytelling.
It feels like it’s been an awfully long time since Will Smith was a good actor, and he certainly isn’t one here. His performance is all facial contortions and overdrawn line readings, with nary a whiff of interiority: the only tension the performance creates is the fear that no one will realize just how right Omalu is. Like many of Smith’s awards-bait roles, he’s chosen a brave character, then chosen to play that character in the safest possible way. Concussion also squanders an impressive supporting cast by relegating them to similarly glib compartments. Albert Brooks plays Omalu’s mentor, Cyril Wecht, a wise and dogged supporter of Omalu’s until he gets bullied into oblivion by the NFL (which didn’t actually happen). Gugu Mbatha-Raw, an immensely talented actress, plays Omalu’s wife, a character so worshipfully devoted to her husband that her presence in the movie feels almost contemptuous, about as substantive as the hot wife in a Budweiser ad, perkily serving nachos in her Manning jersey.
These are the heroes. In terms of villains, one of the weirdest things about Concussion is that it doesn’t really give us any. There’s a vague sinisterness surrounding all things NFL, but the league mostly remains anonymous. Luke Wilson plays Roger Goodell but appears only at televised press conferences, which makes you wonder why they didn’t just use real footage and save a few bucks. Mike O’Malley plays a football-obsessed co-worker who hates Omalu for his anti-gridiron heresy, but the character is both cartoonish and totally inconsequential to the story. There’s a ham-fisted arc about the late Dave Duerson, in which the former defensive back moves from racist CTE denier to CTE casualty in a few quick scenes, and Duerson’s family is outraged at what they claim is the film’s scapegoating of a man not here to defend himself.
In a film with so little interest in gray areas, the bad guy becomes everyone who isn’t the good guys, which leads us to Concussion’s most troubling villain: us. For a movie that’s ostensibly about how awful football is, Concussion sure has a lot of nice things to say about football. There are numerous moments in the film when people speak in awed tones about the “beauty” and “grace” and “power” of the sport, testimonies that are invariably juxtaposed with NFL highlights of balletic feats of wide receiving. And yet Concussion also seeks to paint football as a pathological national addiction, men destroying their brains and bodies on behalf of the insatiable appetite of the football-loving masses. There are hackneyed montages of half-crazed fans—decked out in officially licensed league apparel, one and all—cheering lustily in sports bars. At one point there’s a scoldy, aphoristic soundbite about how the people of Pittsburgh voluntarily coughed up hundreds of millions of dollars to build Heinz Field, a grossly disingenuous gloss on the corrupt nuances of public stadium financing.
Instances like these left me deeply unsure if Concussion was attacking the shield or hiding behind it. The issue of the NFL’s shadow influence on the film has been the subject of much controversy; in September the New York Times reported that Sony had softened the script to make it less overtly critical of the league, though Landesman has vigorously pushed back on that accusation. If the producers did allow the NFL to influence the movie it’s a failure of both politics and filmmaking, but the conversation’s a bit of a red herring, since Concussion doesn’t succeed at either in the first place. The movie’s a punt, and a botched one.
*Correction, Dec. 23, 2015: This article originally misidentified the National Institutes of Health as the National Institute of Health. (Return.)