Kernel Rating (out of 5):
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 123 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 14+. The film about the discovery of the degenerative disease CTE, and whether the NFL knew about the disease and ignored its effects on retired football players, has some violence and thematic content that may be troubling for younger teens. Various characters commit suicide or harm themselves either through alcohol or drug use; there are scenes in county morgues with various corpses before, during, and after autopsies (nothing gory, though); some cursing and vulgar language; a mention of a sexual assault; some romantic content, including a few kisses and an implied sex scene; and a woman suffers a miscarriage.
Will Smith stars as the doctor who discovered CTE and changed how the world, especially the National Football League, views America’s favorite sport and its relationship with concussions. While Smith is dependably good, the rest of the film lacks the needed bite.
By Roxana Hadadi
“Concussion” is simultaneously a movie made to take the NFL to task but also one that needed the NFL’s tacit approval to get made, but it can’t have it both ways. This biopic about Dr. Bennet Omalu, who in the early 2000s began recognizing the degenerative disease CTE in football players who took their own lives, simultaneously attempts to court fans of the sport while also telling them why their favorite organization is undeniably ignorant and probably corrupt. It’s an untenable balance, and it makes for a toothless movie.
Over the past few months, reports have come out chronicling how Sony, the studio behind “Concussion,” basically allowed the NFL to do whatever they wanted in regards to the movie. One email from a studio executive even assures the NFL that they are “not kicking the hornet’s nest.” But if drawing attention to what the NFL knew and when, and how they attempted to discredit physicians who were recognizing signs of concussion-induced mental illness in dead former NFL players, wasn’t the point of “Concussion,” well, what is?
This is a movie that should eviscerate the billionaires running the league for ignoring the needs of the players who they made money off of and then threw aside, and there are admittedly tinges of that, but not enough. Every so often a character opens his mouth and spouts off about how beautiful the sport of football is and how integral it is to American culture, and you can see the movie backing away from itself. Instead, the movie works different angles—Omalu’s love life and his desire to be accepted as an American—to fill in the narrative holes and to take attention off the NFL. It’s kind of shameful, and it doesn’t make for a very compelling movie.
“Concussion” focuses on Omalu (Will Smith, of “Winter’s Tale”), a doctor from Nigeria who has resettled in Pittsburgh in the early 2000s and is working in the county coroner’s office. His list of degrees is ridiculously long, but he can’t cut a break with his coworkers, who judge his unorthodox methods.
His feelings of alienation only grow when he is assigned to perform an autopsy on the body of “Iron Mike” Webster (David Morse, of “World War Z”), a legendary Pittsburgh Steeler who has taken his own life after rapidly declining health. Although Webster supposedly never had a concussion, Omalu notices that his brain is in awful condition – as if he were suffering from a degenerative brain disease for years.
As more football players begin committing suicide, Omalu decides to publish research outlining their symptoms and what could have caused them – attracting the notice of the NFL, who want to bury his findings, and the ire of passionate football fans, whose death threats scare Omalu’s love interest, Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, of “Jupiter Ascending”). But as Omalu’s work becomes increasingly contentious, he grows more passionate about proving that football, even if it is the most American sport, isn’t safe for the people playing it.
Smith gives a solid performance; he’s equally authoritative and aghast, even if the film does go a little heavy on his religious beliefs (“God did not intend for us to play football,” he says in all seriousness) as a shortcut for character development. But the script can’t figure out what kind of movie this is, even it has great zingers like “The NFL owns a day of the week, the same day the Church used to own! And now it’s theirs.”
There are good lines here, but they’re trapped within a movie that can’t bring itself to do the very thing it exists for – to lay criticism at the feet of the NFL. “Concussion” raises that point, and then sidesteps it to provide a happy ending for Omalu and his quest to be an American. Was that the purpose of “Concussion”? It shouldn’t have been.
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