'Concussion' Review: An Admirable But Frustrating True-Life Story [AFI Fest]

The last film we saw with director Peter Landesman's name on it was Kill the Messenger, which he scripted. That drama shares a lot in common with Landesman's sophomore directorial effort, Concussion. Both follow real-life who heroes are simply trying to speak the truth, and yet are treated as villains. Kill the Messenger is the more successful of the two stories, though. Although Concussion is a well-meaning and an undeniably important film, it's also a by-the-numbers, dramatically frustrating underdog story.

Will Smith plays Nigerian-born pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu. The year is 2002 and Omalu is based in Pittsburgh, home to the Pittsburgh Steelers — a team and sport the man knows nothing about. After the doctor performs an autopsy on former Steelers player Mike Webster (David Morse), he discovers a secret the NFL has been hiding. Webster, a former center now in his early 50s, suffered from head trauma, including serious aches and hearing voices. Nobody asks why a man his age is experiencing such problems, except for Omalu. As more players tragically pass away, the doctor discovers a disease caused by football, called CTE. It's a truth nobody, especially the NFL, wants to acknowledge. The only people at Omalu's side are his boss, Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks); the former team doctor for the Steelers; Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin); and Omalu's loving wife, Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).

The highlight of the film is the cast. Whenever Baldwin, Brooks, and Smith are in a scene together, Concussion is suspenseful. Baldwin and Smith help create an urgent, emotional atmosphere. Baldwin has the most compelling arc, having to admit an ugly truth about a sport he loves. Brooks is, as expected, very funny and adds a sense of levity to an otherwise serious drama. The actor plays one of the few characters who wholeheartedly supports Omalu.

Prema is always there at his side, too, and if it weren't for one pivotal scene, she'd be the standard supportive bio film wife. Mbatha-Raw, who was terrific in the overlooked Beyond the Lights, elevates a thin role. What her character and Omalu go through is extremely secondary to the core story, and it feels extraneous to the plot. They experience a tragedy, but it comes off as something the filmmakers included because it's what happened in real life, not because it serves the story. An event that big should have more meaning in a film, but it's almost a footnote in this script.

What Concussion has to say it often says very loudly. A major theme in the film is what it means to be an American. Dr. Omalu wants to fit into this country that has afforded him some amazing opportunities, and although his intentions are incredibly patriotic, the American hero is still treated as an outsider. There's a scene towards the very end that completely spells out the kind of man he is and what the film is saying. We know he's heroic throughout all of Concussion, but after his uphill battle is over, Landesman has a total stranger sum up his journey, and it's one of the many unsubtle moments in the picture.

Concussion is a very surface-level drama, rarely letting the audience read between the lines. Nothing is left unspoken. It's a frustrating experience, because there's so much to admire about Concussion, especially its raw and unflattering depiction of the NFL. We need more movies about people like Dr. Omalu — characters who are heroic not because they can beat someone to a pulp, but because their intentions are noble. In spite of some tense moments, a good heart, and fine performances, Concussion mostly falters as a drama.5.5 out of 10