Concussion (2015)

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“The NFL owns a day of the week. The same day the Church used to own. Now it’s theirs.”

Before I saw Concussiona vine made its way across my phone. It was a clip of a hockey fight with the announcers gleefully singing We Wish You a Merry Christmas as the men traded blows. Supposedly fighting is good fun. And it very well may be, because we can’t get enough of it. Football sits atop the American sporting landscape because we simply can’t look away from the human trainwreck that it is. Some of this movie works, parts feel painfully jokey, and there is a slightly unsettling irony to the film that reveals itself early and far too often. That comes from the forceful methods of the narrative. Points are only made after we’re beat over the head, like some caffeinated kid thwacking away at an arcade whack-a-mole game. On the nose storytelling combined with some fairly deceitful facts lead Concussion into standard protocol. There it remains sidelined, unable to pass the tests necessary to get back onto the field.

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Like almost any film “based on a true story,” certain liberties were taken with the truth. Honestly, I could care less about that so long as they are little white lies and not enormous falsehoods. Not much went down the way the movie shows, but if you’re interested in all of the fact checking, I recommend reading this article. By now you probably know three things: It stars Will Smith, is about concussions, and condemns the NFL. And those are mostly right. Smith plays pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu convincingly. The man discovered CTE’s in former players, caused by severe and prolonged head trauma. He likens its effect to trying to pour wet concrete down your sink; eventually it clogs up and chokes itself. That’s a great metaphor, and one I’m sure was written solely for the screen, but where Concussion goes wrong is its subplots. They come by the handful and only work as sidebar conversations rather than stimulative pieces of growth.

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The biggest hurdle it misses is Omalu’s romance with nurse Prema Mutiso (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Omalu focuses on work and has no life outside of carving up corpses. So Prema comes along, they go out dancing, and then get engaged. Seriously…it happens that fast. As I said earlier, that’s why the movie feels so phony, so much more like candid camera antics than serious drama. The pace resembles a game clock run all the way down, a play run, and then more waiting. We know the outcome of this story because any one of countless millions Americans are currently living it. We’re seeing safety measures being taken, and we know that it is because of concussions and their effects, as well as the barbarity of the sport. Being aware of the outcome without having much interest in the path to get there makes this film, no pun intended, a hard one to tackle.

Smith makes Concussion worth seeing despite its story flaws and PG-13 take on a R rated movie. He hasn’t acted much recently, and the film reminds you of just how impeccable he is. I’d put him up there with any other major actor on his ability to hold your eyes. You can’t help but watch him. And David Morse gives a strong performance as former Pittsburgh Steeler legend Mike Webster, whose deterioration from CTE led to his premature death. A lot of this movie dances around in melodrama rather than standing aside and pointing out the cold hard facts. It’s hard on the NFL, but not enough, and you realize while you watch it on opening weekend that come Sunday night you’ll still be plopped on your couch with wings and beer and eyes glued to America’s Game of the Week. The dodging and vapid clichés only put the game of football in a temporary timeout. I have a feeling that the NFL has earned life on parole, because no matter what happens, and how hard or soft a stance this movie had taken, it’ll never go behind bars. Concussion is meant to scare us straight, but when it frames itself as a boogeyman, the fear disappears the instant the lights are turned on.

“I want it to be fun, but I want it to be truthful.”

Rating: 3 out of 5

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