Saturday, December 26, 2015

Head-On: CONCUSSION


Ironically, for a movie intending to raise awareness for the dangers of football-related brain injuries, Concussion proceeds to beat the audience over the head with the trauma. We see montages of hard hits, often with jocular sportscasters’ commentary and ominous medical slides and scans, thudding horrified score sawing away underneath. There’s no doubt football is a dangerous sport, and the NFL, clinging to a lucrative and popular business model that makes a lot of people very wealthy, has done all it can to downplay, deny, and intimidate anyone who’d raise serious questions about long-term health effects. The movie includes harrowing scenes of several former football players succumbing to mental stresses of one kind or another: rage, severe depression, self-harm, and suicide. It’s a scandal and an outrage that the corporation minting money off of their physical strain continues to ignore, obfuscate, and abdicate any responsibility for this strenuous work.

It’s nothing you couldn’t read about in any number of places – The New York Times, Sport’s Illustrated, GQ, and so on – but Concussion does what only a Hollywood production can to signal boost the important information. The resulting film has good intentions, carrying a message with moral outrage, but does so with a narrative muddled and grey. It tells the story of Dr. Bennett Omalu, the man whose research led to the discovery and diagnosis of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). It’s a rare brain disorder disproportionately affecting professional football players, brought on by long-term and repeated concussions which leave those afflicted with brain damage causing all manner of psychological and mental problems, contributing to untimely deaths. Omalu, an optimistic, hard-working Nigerian immigrant with several medical degrees working as a coroner in Pittsburgh, is presented as a man who simply did the right thing by reporting what he discovers. He can think of no more American thing to do, and is sad to discover an organization out to discredit him because of it.

Omalu, played by Will Smith with a gentle accent, is presented as an outsider capable of seeing the game for the violence and strain that it causes on the human body because he has no stake in the game itself. We see a team doctor (Alec Baldwin), NFL officials (Luke Wilson, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Hill Harper), and even medical professionals who are simply huge football fans (Mike O’Malley) who bristle at the idea that anything could be wrong with these players, especially if that problem arises from their sport. Evidence mounts, and it becomes harder to deny. Helpful supporters are targeted for intimidation, like Omalu’s kind but tough boss (Albert Brooks), while the good doctor is run out of town and then ignored. It’s all rather downbeat, as it should be, slowly and sadly contemplating a self-interested system of bureaucracy, capitalism, nostalgia, and politics conspiring to ignore scientific evidence for the sake of keeping a sport going unchanged at the expense of the health of its players.

For the passion and importance behind the film, it’s lifeless in execution. As it hits its marks, while leaving strange half-complete implications (why did an NFL chairman resign?) in its wake, actors don’t have much to room to maneuver. Smith plays well off all the white men in suits, projecting exhausted decency, while occasionally playing out a malnourished romantic side-plot with Gugu Mbatha-Raw. She’s asked to be a figure of warmth and compassion helping him onward, but is really just there so he has someone not in his profession to talk to between scenes of autopsies and intimidations. Somehow they both left their charisma behind the camera, deciding to play scenes of light flirtation, deep compassion, and heavy heartbreak with the bare minimum of energy.

Interesting without involving, writer-director Peter Landesman crafts a movie that leaps through the investigations on display to get to conclusions faster, shortens processes for the sake of staring at outcomes. Little time for character nuance, the people speak in informational exchanges. Omalu discovers CTE in a montage. Minds are changed, or not, in the space of wonky expositional dialogue. Tragedies play out on the sides of the frames, hinted at by the damage left in their wake – player’s deaths felt with the grim march of news footage and mourners. This is no Spotlight, patient and methodical in portraying the steps by which a cover-up was exposed. Instead, we get dribs and drabs of information, and are left to fill in gaps. What, exactly, did the NFL do to dismantle Omalu’s professional life in Pennsylvania? And what are we to think has been accomplished by the end, with notes of victory and uncertainty placed side by side?

Landesman’s approach to the material lands it squarely between impassioned op-ed and inspirational biopic, leaving it unsatisfying and unfinished any way you look at it. He doesn’t juggle the jargon with any precision, relying on rapid-fire montage and assumptions to power that plot of professional discovery and moral urgency. Meanwhile, the characters don’t come to life in any meaningful way, spouting facts and discussing right out in the open what other filmmakers might leave as subtext.  The subject matter is dispiriting enough without the movie feeling so incomplete, heavy-handed and full of miss-matched synaptic connections and half-finished thoughts. Maybe the movie itself has been concussed one too many times. Omalu’s story is far more intriguing, and his research far more vital, than the movie manages to portray.

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