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Reviews

Concussion

Gareth Higgins

Directed by Peter Landesman

Cert 12A, 122 mins

 

Concussion, in which Will Smith plays the pathologist who brought to public attention the life-limiting impact of head injuries sustained in American Football, is an important film. A rare politically challenging mainstream movie (in that it aims to undermine the edifice of an enormous social institution typically assumed to be unquestionable), it has not found the audience it deserves. This may be evidence that people like sport more than cinema; or certainly that we like sport more than a movie that criticizes sport.

After a beloved local football star dies at 50, Nigerian pathologist Dr Bennet Omalu (Smith) looks beyond the surface. Dementia in someone that young turns out to be far more prevalent than expected among guys who spent their careers hitting things with their heads. (Some doctors apparently suggest that a 25 year football career would lead to the equivalent of being in '25,000 automobile crashes'.) Omalu's research eventually shows a disproportionate incidence of the neurodegenerative disease Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in former football players. The National Football League effectively dismisses his claims, but the story is out there, and the very existence of this film is evidence that it won't go away.

It's intriguing that the resources of one large American cultural institution have been used to be so damning of another. In Concussion, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, refers to football as not just a sport, but 'an entertainment product'. An entertainment product, of course, whose corporate controllers 'own a day of the week'. Omalu's struggle to be heard is the more moving because he's doing so as an outsider, too easily insulted or excluded because of his race and nationality. It's the perfect role for Smith, who has tended toward playing 'grounded' moral authority figures; but the quality of whose work suffers the more widely he wants to appeal. His best films - Ali, Six Degrees of Separation, After Earth - get the smallest audiences. His worst - Independence Day, Men in Black II - are huge hits. Concussion is somewhere in between those two poles in terms of its quality - the central performance is full, the narrative compelling, but despite Smith's acting and able support from Lupita N'yongo, David Morse, Alec Baldwin, and Albert Brooks, the whole package is a little too slick, a little too shiny to be compared to the greatest social commentary movies. (The fact that the final 'where are they now?' caption in the movie refers not to his scientific achievements, but to the fact that Bennet Omalu recently became a US citizen tells you how unsubtle is its vision of success.)

But it does tell an important story, and a story which has not yet found its tipping point. (That's one of the more fascinating elements of Concussion - usually Hollywood comes late to tales of contemporary injustice, telling them long after the real story is over. This time they're ahead of the game.) This film may yet provoke change. The real Dr Omalu says, 'I think because of our intoxication with football, we are in some type of delusional denial'. He could be speaking of entertainment generally, or politics, or the way that stories of using violence to bring order out of chaos dominate our cultural life. Who can we trust to make sport safe? Or to tell a truthful story? If entertainment can damage your health, who will show us that you can have fun without killing people? Will Smith isn't about to stop making films that enshrine the myth of redemptive violence, but from time to time someone with his power and influence uses it to relate a small story about a big truth. And even though Concussion is not a great film, I'm still thinking about it.