Concussion movie review: 'Plods along amiably but would have benefited from focus on drama rather than sentiment'
Will Smith takes on the NFL in this enjoyable drama
Rugby fans who are starting to worry about the long-term effects of concussions on our own star players should consider the experiences of American footballers. While Rugby Union only became professional in 1995, US footballers were playing for money before the turn of the 20th century, and their game has been moulded and changed by commercial considerations ever since, right down to those interminable stoppages to allow for TV ad breaks.
The introduction of solid plastic helmets in the 1950s must have seemed like a good idea, but had disastrous consequences, encouraging the increase of violent head-to-head collisions while offering no real protection to the juddering brains inside the players' skulls. It took decades to discover the damage that repeat high-speed collisions were doing to players in the defensive line, and when concrete evidence finally did emerge the sport's governing body fought tooth and nail to protect their billion-dollar franchise.
Concussion is based on the pioneering work of Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian-born forensic pathologist who was working in a Pittsburgh coroner's office in the early 2000s when a much-loved local celebrity was wheeled in.
Omalu (Will Smith) is a bit of a character, who likes to listen to soul music while slicing up his cadavers, and chats to his 'patients' before he operates. But he's a gifted pathologist, and when he opens up Mike Webster (David Morse), he's puzzled by what he finds.
'Iron Mike' had enjoyed a 16-year playing career in the NFL, and was the much-loved star of the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive line. But after his retirement in 1990 his behaviour had become wildly erratic. He'd complained of headaches, amnesia, depression and began showing dementia-like symptoms, left his home and ended up living out of his pick-up truck, self-medicating, and pulling his own teeth out then super-gluing them back in.
He was just 50 when he died, and at first Dr Omalu can find absolutely nothing to explain his bizarre set of symptoms. But when he examines Webster's brain tissue, he discovers signs of a previously unknown neurodegenerative disease. He names it chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, and concludes that the crippling condition was the result of the estimated 25,000 high-speed collisions endured by Webster during his playing career in high school, college and the NFL.
The condition is undetectable before death, but soon more ex-footballers are dying in bizarre circumstances and Omalu's theory gathers weight. But when he publishes his findings he faces hostility and litigation from the hugely powerful NFL.
Alec Baldwin plays a former Pittsburgh Steelers team medic who backs Omalu's claims, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw is the Nigerian nursing student with whom he falls in love, but when the NFL unleash their dogs on him, Bennet begins to feel isolated.
Concussion plods along amiably enough, but might have been better if writer/director Peter Landesman had paid more attention to drama and less to sentiment: some of the relationship-building interplay feels a little forced. Still, the fact that it's been made at all is a good thing, because the NFL still hasn't really dealt with the problem of how to protect its players without destroying the drama and spectacle of their beloved game.
Will Smith is perfectly fine, and makes a decent fist of a Nigerian accent that nevertheless reminded me of Eddie Murphy's African prince routine from Trading Places. His Omalu is a winning individualist whose greatest wish is to become an American until he realises the way the country actually works.
The supporting cast are good, particularly Albert Brooks, who gives a colourful turn as Omalu's mentor, Dr Cyril Wecht, and brings much-needed humour to this workmanlike and well-intentioned film.