Concussion (dir. Peter Landesman)

Posted: January 6, 2016 in Uncategorized

Football, which is to say American Football, is the most popular sport in the United States.  Baseball fans may disagree as their sport has traditionally been called “America’s Pastime”, but to a certain segment of the United States, Football ranks right up there with Jesus, ultra-nationalism/patriotism, and the military as far as things that every American should hold dear. “Concussion” is a film aimed at making that segment of the American population (lower-middle class white Conservatives in red states) turn against football.  The problem with this is that the film’s solution to its problem of getting the audience to turn against something they love is to make the main character so unimpeachable, so likable, and so pro-religion and pro-America that he comes across as an annoying goody-two-shoes (the casting of Will Smith, he of much charisma and little actual talent, doesn’t help), and he is so one-dimensionally good and just that the film, which has a legitimate grievance with the sport of football and the NFL, feels like it is stacking the deck in a way that turns you against the film.  I’m sure the real doctor, Bennet Omalu, is a perfectly nice man and a very good doctor in real life, but the film version is a character who the film tries so hard to make it impossible to not like that it goes clean through the other side and makes you hate every moment he’s on screen.  The fact that he’s in 98% of all the scenes in the film means you have a very unpleasant experience watching the movie.

 

Omalu, as played by Will Smith, is a coroner in Pennsylvania.  He’s such a gee-whiz nice guy that he talks to his corpses before he cuts them open, and insists on throwing away his instruments after each dead body because it’s disrespectful to re-use instruments on different “patients”, even though the country coroner’s office isn’t exactly cash-rich.  This is all supposed to make the character endearing, but I found him to be about as annoying as being stuck in a jail cell with Ned Flanders. Omalu has a co-worker (Mike O’Malley) who hates him, and even though that co-worker seems to have no legitimate gripe against the guy, and thus is supposed to be a jerk, you as a viewer are so annoyed with Omalu that you empathize with THAT guy.  Omalu is a Nigerian who came to America, the film tells us, because it was one step below Heaven and because Omalu buys into the dream/fantasy of upward mobility and American Exceptionalism.  I guess compared to Nigeria the United States is a big step up, but his myopic all-in on this Conservative reactionary fantasy of America feels like a big olive branch to the Conservative audience members who would be otherwise hostile to this character (and the film) for daring to question the holy goodness of football.  And, of course, despite Omalu being a man of science (the film awkwardly gives us a long list of his credentials and education in a scene where Omalu is testifying in a murder case as an expert witness), he is thoroughly religious and invokes his god whenever possible.  When another doctor tells him not to mention god and stick to the science, I felt the same way.

 

Anyway, soon a corpse winds up on Omalu’s table that is famous in the area.  It’s ex-Pittsburg Steeler Mike Webster (played behind ridiculous make-up by David Morse).  Omalu is curious as to why a seemingly healthy man in his 50s, a famous man supposedly beloved by the city, goes crazy and dies. So, the guy pays for $20,000 worth of tests out of his own pocket. In real life I suppose this shows the real Omalu to be a selfless man in search of the truth no matter what.  In the film, it comes across as fucking annoying. Perhaps an actor better than Will Smith could have pulled this off, but Smith does little more than smile, put on an accent, and tries to combine the trope of the simpleton but give him a very intelligent doctor’s brain capacity.  The result doesn’t work at all.  The tests show that Webster had something very wrong with his brain, and soon Omalu has made the connection that a serious of concussions and sub-concussive blows on a regular basis really mess up a human brain, causing the symptoms that lead to Webster’s mental deterioration and death.  These blows came from playing football.  There are a few good moments where Omalu explains how humans have no real safety mechanism built in to protect from these kinds of blows, unlike some species of bird, and he demonstrates what happens to the brain by putting something in a jar full of fluid and shaking it. Those scenes, and a couple of montages, make up the bulk of the film’s high points.

 

Soon, more ex-players are dying, the NFL is denying things and seemingly trying to intimidate Omalu into silence.  At one point the FBI seems to be going after Omalu by indicting his boss (Albert Brooks behind very bad make-up) for using the state’s fax machine for personal use (apparently this is one of the film’s stretching of fact).  The film gives some lip service to the NFL’s business considerations and that knowledge of this disease, dubbed CTE, will keep parents from letting their kids play football and eventually dry up future talent pools of players.  It has the NFL excuse their silence and cover-up by saying they inject a lot of money into the communities they have stadiums in (John Oliver recently debunked that on his show).  The NFL are the villains of the film, and are not given a free pass, but the film still feels like it’s pulling its punches.  The movie seems to have more of an issue with football as a sport, even though real life cases of CTE are not confined to football but have been found in other sports figures from boxing, hockey, and elsewhere.  This film may have watered down its attacks on the NFL slightly, because this film is not nearly as angry with them as “Spotlight” was about the Catholic Church or Michael Mann’s “The Insider” was about the tobacco industry.  In fact, many of the people in the film attacking Omalu are not actual NFL employees, but crank calling football fans, ex-players, and doctors.  Roger Goodell and official NFL employees don’t have dialogue much of the time.

 

Meanwhile, the film tries to get us to care about Omalu’s romance with a woman (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) he allows to live in his home because his church orders/requests him too, and he enjoys going out dancing with her.  They don’t seem to have much chemistry, but since they’re both immigrants from Africa and religious, the film seems to think that’s enough for us to feel like they’re in love and should pair up.  Later, the film blames her miscarriage on being stalked for Omalu speaking out against football.  I don’t know if this is something that actually happened, but it feels a bit shameless and manipulative in the film.

 

There is a good story to tell about CTE, football, the NFL’s cover-up based solely on corporate greed, and the players who suffer.  There’s a story to tell about young men who, even knowing the risks, will still choose to play because the dreams of stardom and a paycheck getting them out of the lower classes is enough for them to risk their bodies, brains, and lives.  “Concussion” is not the film that does those stories justice.  It is a poorly made film with the most annoying protagonist in recent memory, horrible make-up, and that pulls its punches despite its very obvious anger.  The writer/director, Peter Landesman, has previous made two not-well-received films; one about the doctors who operated on JFK after he was shot by Oswald, and the other about the reporter who discovered the link between the CIA and crack being introduced into the American ghettos.  Not having seen those films myself I can’t personally say if they were as bad as their reviews indicate, but it seems like Landesman is making a career out of making bad movies out of really interesting topics.  One hopes he either gets better at making movies, or stops taking topics that other filmmakers could do a good job with and ruining the chances of a good film being made about them by taking them on himself. D+

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