Lawrence Toppman

Will Smith’s ‘Concussion’ hits hard

Alec Baldwin stars as Dr. Julian Bailes and Will Smith stars as Dr. Bennet Omalu in Columbia Pictures' “Concussion.”
Alec Baldwin stars as Dr. Julian Bailes and Will Smith stars as Dr. Bennet Omalu in Columbia Pictures' “Concussion.” Columbia Pictures

After another year full of aliens, serial killers, lab-created monsters, destructive beasts and vengeful supervillains, what a pleasure it is to encounter a movie where evil takes an ordinary human form – in the NFL.

“Concussion” tracks the efforts of Nigerian-born doctor Bennet Omalu to convince the league its policies lead to irreversible brain trauma, which is causing retired players to fall apart psychologically. Omalu (Will Smith) believes naively that truth will be more important to the league than profits. Clearly, he hadn’t been in America very long when he set out on this quest in 2002.

Writer-director Peter Landesman (“Parkland”) started with “Game Brain,” a GQ magazine article by Jeanne Marie Laskas. He turned it into a stirring, occasionally preachy tale about the Pittsburgh pathologist who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy but could get hardly anyone to listen to him.

He’s backed in this version by a young nurse who falls in love with him (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), his veteran boss (wry Albert Brooks) and a former NFL team physician who doesn’t want to believe what science tells him must be so (Alec Baldwin). He’s ignored by mainstream media and opposed by millionaire owners and fans, who fear that interest in the game will tail off if the savage moments of contact get suppressed.

All the supporting parts have been well cast, especially David Morse as former all-pro center Mike Webster of the Steelers. Webster plunged into depression, took drugs and frequently tried to kill himself, and his incoherent rage at his own decline reminds us how much Morse can do as an actor when given a chance.

Yet Smith dominates the film. He captures the upright stance, slightly stiff movements and lilting accent of a highly educated African who realizes he doesn’t understand America, and America doesn’t understand him. If Omalu seems impossibly naive in spots, Smith still conveys the right air of injured innocence: Why won’t anyone listen?

Landesman tries too hard at times to remind us of the importance of his work: A federal official offering Omalu a job says, “You exemplify everything it is to be an American.” We get too many speeches about Truth with a capital T and America being a land of opportunity for foreigners.

Yet the film also raises disturbing questions: Will football, ice hockey and especially prizefighting lose their identities if we remove potentially brutal elements? Would people care less and/or stop paying to watch? The answer, of course, is yes. And while movies such as “Concussion” won’t change that, it’s good to be reminded of the price these athletes pay to entertain us.

Toppman: 704-358-5232


Cast: Will Smith, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Albert Brooks, Alec Baldwin.

Writer-director: Peter Landesman.

Length: 123 minutes.

Rating: PG-13 (thematic material, including some disturbing images, and language).