If you’re interested in the seemingly endless factual inaccuracies in “Concussion,” my colleague Dan Flynn has already knocked that ball out of the park. Not being a football fan, I walked into the theatre as a movie fan, which is my approach to this review.
“Concussion” opens well. As someone who is more than a little tired of the trope of the flawed anti-hero, it was a breath of fresh air to have our protagonist, forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith), portrayed as a legitimately decent and achingly sincere everyman — a Christian immigrant from Nairobi who believes in America and is appreciative of all this country has offered him.
Strictly from a storytelling point of view, a compelling scoundrel is much easier to craft than the opposite, which is one of the reasons the flawed hero has become one of Hollywood’s most tiresome dramatic crutches. It is also good for our culture when movies portray heroes as actual heroes, as virtuous men who not only stand up for what is right but live a moral life.
At first, “Concussion” impressed with its seeming desire to take that route, and do so in the tradition of Hollywood’s greatest medical biographies, Paul Muni’s “The Story of Louis Pasteur” (1936) and Edward G. Robinson’s “Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet” (1940), two biopics about decent, driven, complicated men fighting against a willfully ignorant system.
Then things got stupid.
Though he might be capable of it, director/writer Peter Landesman is not interested in crafting a compelling character from a decent man. His real goal is to use this earnest, one-dimensional saint as a means to manipulate us. Because our protagonist is a Christian patriot who personifies the American immigrant experience, the movie repeatedly beats us over the head with the notion that it is un-American to not be on his side.
Football is a patriotic, conservative sport. This one of the reasons it is so successful, and it is the only reason the Left wants to see it destroyed. The Omalu character wasn’t crafted by storytellers, he was crafted by propagandists. And this fact eventually undermines everything. Muni and Edward G. portrayed honorable men, but at the same time Pasteur and Ehrilich were also human: ambitious, single-minded, and frequently (and wonderfully) manipulative.
Other than the fact that Omalu is played by Will Smith and benefits from his charisma, after a while I wanted to punch this precious little character in his precious little face, especially when he was practicing his precious little affectation of preciously reassuring his dead “patients” out loud that he would take good care of them.
“Concussion” also lacks the courage of conviction. Instead of being cheeky about it, and this might drive football fans crazy for me to say so, the movie would have been a helluva lot better had it gone after the NFL full bore. As dishonest as it is, one of the primary features that made “Fahrenheit 9/11” so brilliant was director Michael Moore’s audacious and shameless zeal to destroy George W. Bush. Oliver Stone’s “JFK” is just as dishonest but its conviction is crucial to its brilliance.
Whether or not you believe the NFL deserves a beatdown over the issue of chronic traumatic encephalopathy is beside the dramatic point. By pussy-footing around the villainy, “Concussion” is laughably melodramatic as opposed to compelling. Does anyone believe the NFL attempted to intimidate Omalu with the trope of threatening phone calls? Does anyone believe the NFL had someone follow Omalu’s wife until the stress caused her to have a miscarriage? Does anyone believe the NFL has the power to convince the FBI to file false charges?
I might have believed it (see: Michael Mann’s “The Insider”) had Landesman portrayed the NFL as mercenary as opposed to lawyerly. Moreover, anyone with even a minor sense of political awareness understands that over the last two decades, big business has become as corrupt and as big of a threat to our personal liberty as their cronies in big government. By the time the credits rolled, “Concussion’s” painfully obvious detour around this theme had steam coming out of my ears.
Another big problem is that “Concussion” plays like a television movie. It is the opposite of cinematic. Even the endless scenes (we get it, we get it) of football players taking knocks to the head come from footage.
Thanks to American treasure Albert Brooks, who plays Omalu’s cynical but understanding boss Dr. Cyril Wecht, “Concussion” does have some very good moments. But even these are undermined by Landesman’s pedantic obsession to remind us that Wecht is a Democrat. In fact, time and again, using news footage, real-life Democrat lawmakers are portrayed as heroes. Yawn.
Nothing offended me more, though, than when the film told us that Omalu finally achieved his dream of becoming a true American, but only after the federal government told him so.
There is nothing more un-American than the belief that your self-worth comes from, of all things, your Central Government.
Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC