Genre: Drama
Director: Peter Landesman
Cast: Will Smith, Stephen Moyer, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Eddie Marsan, Alec Baldwin, Luke Wilson, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, David Morse, Albert Brooks, Hill Harper, Matthew Willig
Runtime: 2 hrs 3 min
Rating: PG13 (Some Coarse Language)
Released By: Golden Village Pictures
Official Website: 

Opening Day: 14 January 2016

Synopsis:  Will Smith stars in Concussion, a dramatic thriller based on the incredible true David vs. Goliath story of American immigrant Dr. Bennet Omalu, the brilliant forensic neuropathologist who made the first discovery of CTE, a football-related brain trauma, in a pro player and fought for the truth to be known. Omalu's emotional quest puts him at dangerous odds with one of the most powerful institutions in the world.

Movie Review:

Logic will probably tell you that repeated concussions to the head may eventually lead to significant cognitive impairments, but when faced with the prospect of losing a multibillion-dollar business, not even hard science can be enough. That’s the unfortunate position that Nigerian-born pathologist Dr Bennet Omalu found himself in back in 2002 when he announced that he had discovered a disease caused by football which he termed chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Not only did the all-powerful National Football League (NFL) refuse to acknowledge his findings, it tried various means to shut Bennet up, such as triggering an FBI probe on his supportive boss to force him to leave his post in Pittsburgh.

‘Concussion’ is as much a study of Bennet’s struggle to bring his discovery to light as it is of the toll that it inflicts on him and his family. As much as one would like to see his David-versus-Goliath story told as a thriller with the NFL as the corporation that he eventually takes down, writer-director Peter Landesman avoids such convenient genre stereotypes in favour of a more restrained character study on Bennett himself. Yes, you’ll see the lengths the NFL will go to discredit him and demand a retraction, but equally you’ll also see Bennet romancing the Kenyan-born Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a boarder he takes in at the behest of his church who would eventually become his wife and mother of his three kids.

These are two quite different stories in and of themselves, and not surprisingly, opinion has been divided on how the two seemingly parallel narrative strands fit together. Yet rather than being an unnecessary distraction, Bennet’s romance with Prema allows us to appreciate a different side of the good doctor that we would otherwise be blind to. Lest we forget, Bennet was not even an American citizen at the time when he did his ground-breaking research; instead, he was an outsider who had come to the United States in pursuit of the American dream – in his own words describing how becoming an American was an ideal growing up in Nigeria, “You could be anything, you could do anything. I never wanted anything as much as I wanted to be an American.”

Who can blame him for letting that hope turn into disillusion when faced with the NFL and their dirty tricks? Who can blame him for regretting at the lowest point of his personal and professional life that he ever met beloved Hall of Fame center “Iron Mike” Webster of the Steelers? And who can blame him for retreating to the city of Lodi, California, at the time he was being persecuted, rather than stand up for himself and his work? Without Prema, the personal stakes of that high-risk gamble he took by taking on the NFL would not be as acutely felt, and his decision to retreat from public view for three years before his belated vindication would only seem cowardly and even embarrassing.

Implicit in the way Landesman has chosen to tell Bennet’s story is the fact that CTE would probably have not been discovered were it not for someone like Bennet. Before Bennet, the conventional wisdom held at the time held was that former football players who died in their 40s or 50s suffered from dementia or early onset Alzheimer’s. No one was asking why so many of these men were stricken with early onset Alzheimer’s in the first place – not even their team doctor, whose job was largely to get players back on the field. It wasn’t just that he was not an NFL doctor; oh no, Bennet was no ordinary physician. For one, he likes to throw his instruments away after each autopsy; for another, he talks to the dead before each autopsy to ask them for their help to tell the world what happened to them.

It is precisely that curiosity which led him to order tests he had to pay for himself in order to find out just what happened to Webster, whose mental breakdown he attributes to the thousands of collisions sustained over the course of a professional football career. That breakthrough is good enough for him to be published in a medical journal, though it will take several more test cases before the press and the general public sit up and take notice. There is more than enough material in Bennet’s fascinating fact-based story to turn it into a scientific-sports thriller, but Landesman – who was a journalist for longer than he has been a filmmaker – avoids sensationalising the conspiratorial elements and allows Bennet’s fight to be heard to tell itself.

No doubt those expecting a more incendiary thriller will be disappointed, but there is no shame in Landesman’s choice to tell Bennet’s struggle by way of a heartfelt biography. Especially not when he has Will Smith as Bennet, the actor putting his gentle unassuming charm and easy unaffected charisma to good use in a strong performance that opts for nuance and avoids going over-the-top. Smith is surrounded by some top-class supporting acts, including Alec Baldwin as a former NFL doctor who becomes his invaluable ally, Albert Brooks as his boss and mentor, and an almost unrecognisable David Morse as the unhinged Webster in his later years. Besides Morse, Richard T. Jones and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje also play real-life ex-NFL players Andre Waters and Dave Duerson respectively.

You may not get the sport (for the record, Bennet wasn’t a fan, even though his wife Prema was), but ‘Concussion’ is a very different sports-based movie that takes on the business and game which has all but swallowed up American sport. It is about the fight for the truth, a decent God-fearing man’s fight against a big-money monolith. But it is also that rare film which doesn’t delight in beating its own chest, in adulating its real-life hero slavishly, that would rather be subtle and humble about his victory over a wrathful Goliath. It is ultimately anchored by Will Smith’s finest acting in years, which is reason enough to see it. 

Movie Rating:

(A David-versus-Goliath tale that opts for a heartfelt biography of its 'David'-like subject and ultimately wins you over thanks to Will Smith's fine understated performance that is his best in years)

Review by Gabriel Chong


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