“Tell the truth,” Will Smith (and Jada)! Concussion didn’t deserve any Oscar nominations!
After all the hoopla about how the Smiths boycotted last month’s Academy Awards because of a perceived snub against the film — and in particular, the Fresh Prince’s portrayal of Dr Bennet Omalu — I decided it was time that I checked out this controversial flick about the deviating effects of repeated head injuries in the NFL.
As the true story goes, Omalu (Smith), a Nigerian forensic pathologist, performs an autopsy on former gridiron great Mike Webster (David Morse), who suffered from terrifying mental illness in his post-playing days prior to his death. He found it bizarre that Webster turned out that way despite his apparent sound physical health, and further investigation and research led him to conclude that repeated head trauma incurred throughout a long career in football was the cause behind a disorder he refers to as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
Needless to say, this finding doesn’t go down too well with a lot of people (I thought it was common sense that getting concussed isn’t good for your brain, but whatever), from organisations that make billions out of the brain jolting to casual lovers of America’s No. 1 sport. As you might expect, Omalu is faced with loads of obstacles, abuse and threats, but the determined dude soldiers on to force the NFL to “Tell the truth!”
First of all, I’m going to address the controversial inaccuracies before casting them aside. I didn’t know how closely the film followed real life until I read up about it later, so I’m not going to let that affect my initial impressions. It does appear that Concussion took a lot of “artistic liberties” with the truth, and while some of it can be attributed to the same people who wanted to silence Omalu in the first place, there are several irrefutable facts that are clearly manipulated for movie purposes. But let’s not pretend Concussion is the first “true story” to have a few fictional elements.
My problem with Concussion is that it comes across as far too neat, far too conventional, and far too shallow for what is supposed to be a complex, explosive, adrenaline-pumping drama about something so many Americans care deeply about. While it is well-made for what it is, the film follows a familiar Hollywood trajectory that hits predictable plot markers all the way through. You know he’s going to find something and you know it’s going to stir up trouble and you know he’s going to fight. There’s really nothing that will catch you off guard.
To be fair, there is sufficient intrigue — largely thanks to the subject matter — to maintain interest, and the performances from the all-star cast add a nice touch of class to what is obviously a top notch production. But the overwhelming vibe I got from watching the movie is “packaged”. Its depiction of the scandal is extremely simple, straightforward and one-sided, and for a story like this you almost need it to be messier and to have more risk-taking.
That scene in all the trailers where an emotional Omalu demands that they “Tell the truth!” is a great illustration of my point. You can tell it’s been set up as Will’s big “Oscar moment”, from the lighting to the camera angles to the fact that Omalu had never been anything close to as animated as he was, making the outburst somewhat jarring. I imagine they had planned for the clip to be played during the introduction of the Best Actor nominees at the Oscars ceremony. You know they did.
Will Smith typically plays characters with clean images, and Omalu is unfortunately also portrayed as a saint, which I believe is to the detriment of the film. He’s a man of God and science, a genius with more than half a dozen degrees, and a perfect gentleman with the utmost manners and integrity. He’s a little eccentric but not socially inept or odd, and the only time he loses his temper is when he wants people to “Tell the truth!”
It’s fine if that’s who Omalu really is, but from some accounts he’s actually quite a flamboyant character who doesn’t mind the finer things in life. Wouldn’t a complex protagonist be a lot more interesting than some boring, lionised hero who always does the right thing against all odds?
None of this is a criticism of Smith, who delivers another stellar performance notwithstanding his lack of physical resemblance to the real Omalu (think a shorter, chubbier version of David Oyelowo, who actually would have been an awesome choice). And you could have fooled me that Smith’s African accent wasn’t shaky because it sounded pretty good to my untrained ears.
The rest of the cast is also very solid, with Alec Baldwin and Albert Brooks being the standouts along with rising star Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who feels slightly wasted in the love interest role.
In other words, the fundamentals of a good drama are all there. Writer and director Peter Landesman also doesn’t press too hard on the audience manipulation, setting up the impactful moments but not shoving the emotions down our throats (apart from “Tell the truth!”). For some, that might actually be a negative, as there are audiences who no doubt prefer to be told how to feel (a la The Blind Side).
Concussion is therefore not a bad film, but it’s also an unremarkable one. While the subject matter and overall quality of the production guarantee a viewing experience of a certain level, the decision to play it safe and stick to the oft-used blueprint for true stories/biopics denies it the opportunity to rise above the pack in the way that Spotlight did. And that’s the truth!
3.25 stars out of 5