Concussion may not be a great movie in the cinematic sense, but there’s no disputing its subject matter – the brain injury and subsequent psychological trauma suffered by professional football players – packs an enthralling and devastating punch.
Taking a GQ Magazine article and adapting it into a gritty screenplay, the film’s writer-director, Peter Landesman (himself a former investigative journalist), doesn’t bother with flashy courtroom performances à la A Few Good Men or breath-taking photography as in The Insider, but does a solid job of telling the heartbreaking true story of Pittsburgh Steelers players whose occupational hazard – that is, being rammed into at great speeds (the physics of which is neatly explained by Will Smith’s protagonist, Dr Bennet Omalu) – was deemed to lead to their subsequent suicides.
The plot wisely introduces us to these doomed characters so we can taste their pain (notably David Morse’s superb transformation into star NFL player Mike Webster) before laying them on Omalu’s coroner’s slab and getting into the science of the situation. Newsreel from the era is used effectively to help ground the tale in truth and lend weight to its tragedy, aiding somewhat our suspension of disbelief as Smith adopts a Nigerian accent and a self-righteous humility as the immigrant whose principles prove stronger than those of the heavyweight sporting organisation.
If you strip out the film’s mild flaws – among them the thudding “America-praising” moments, and Omalu’s burgeoning romance with another young African immigrant, played by Belle’s Gugu Mbatha-Ra (which is narratively necessary but feels weak) – Concussion is still fascinating and appalling in as it reveals Omalu’s uncomfortable findings.
The story is reminiscent of Dr Jeffrey Wigand’s fight in the The Insider (a hugely-recommended film about the case against Big Tobacco, which is also evoked in Concussion). The fact that to this day people are still playing high-impact sports, just as they are still smoking, is a damning indictment of corporate power as well as human nature’s unyielding demand for pleasure and entertainment. Whatever your personal take on the issues, Concussion leaves you with plenty to think about.