“Concussion” takes a hot-button issue and hits the audience over the head with it until they walk out of the theater, slightly dazed but with plenty on their minds.
The issue is, of course, concussions. For any football fan, it’s something seen every game, with hits, sacks, tackles, catches and touchdowns each taking their invisible toll on the body and the brain.
Invisible, that is, until Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) does an autopsy on Steelers legend Mike Webster (David Morse) and finds a severely damaged brain. Through more research, study and searching he finds that prolonged brain injury leads to one thing: death.
Others are less-than-enthused by his findings and are intent on burying Omalu’s research and the man himself.
While a story about a doctor’s research and pulling apart dead bodies doesn’t exactly sound like a particularly engaging film, the obstacles Omalu faces, as well as his approach, make you want to stay in your seat.
Smith’s performance entrances the audience. He completely dissolves into the role, becoming unrecognizable in both voice and appearance. He doesn’t just give Omalu an accent, but changes his tone and elocution as well. Smith also gives his character certain ticks, like the way he folds his hands when he’s waiting or thinking.
“Concussion” also benefits from the editing. During Omalu’s research, he studies football and the audience studies with him, watching clips from various games. The clips come at you between shots of Omalu, in a fast rhythm, but not too fast, with voice-over commentary by sports broadcasters. From professional, college, all the way down to pee wee, you get so see all kinds of head-to-head hits, some you might even recognize. The theater also fills with sounds of “oh” and “ah” in pained reactions from the audience watching the hard hits.
The editing pairs nicely with the cinematography, which gets in close to the action of football and the reaction of the characters. There are plenty of close-up shots of Omalu, especially his eyes, as he tries to help the football players he sees who are hurting. Omalu doesn’t want to destroy football, but he wants players to know the risks and be aware of what’s going on in their heads.
Unfortunately, the goal doesn’t always come off as clearly as it should. Sometimes it feels like “Concussion” is making football the enemy, if not the NFL. It runs the risk of ostracizing or even villainizing the very group the movie is designed to reach and the people who need to see it most. How do you tell people that the game they love to play and watch is a health hazard to the players? “Concussion” struggles with this, and depending on who’s watching will decide whether it succeeds or fails.
“Concussion” is a powerful movie with an important message. This message is made even stronger with a Smith performance that pulls you in. Perhaps the movie comes off a little too strong. It’s a hard message to balance, but it’s a message that deserves to be at least heard.