“Concussion”: Movie about the Nigerian doctor who connected football with brain damage is too soft and gooey for its own good. 2.5 stars out of 4.
It’s not hard to see, if you squint, the movie that Peter Landesman’s well-intentioned “Concussion” is trying to be. Substitute Big Tobacco for the NFL, Russell Crowe (in one of his finest performances) for Will Smith and Michael Mann’s creative flourishes for Landesman’s bland competence, and there it is — 1999’s “The Insider.” Two movies, both about a whistle-blower in an industry that’s eager to cover up any dangers; two fascinating stories, only one of which translates into a truly electric movie.
It’s too bad: “Concussion” certainly had the potential. It’s the based-on-fact story of Dr. Bennet Omalu (Smith), a Nigerian immigrant and forensic neuropathologist who was among the first to definitively connect football with severe brain damage caused by repetitive head injury. In the film, we see him speaking softly to the corpses on whom he performs autopsies, fascinated by the brain — and by the anomalies that he finds in the brain of a former professional football player who struggled with dementia in middle age.
But this compelling discovery, met with resistance by the NFL, gets cluttered up in Landesman’s telling: too much gooey music, an unnecessary romantic subplot (and a waste of Gugu Mbatha-Raw, whose talents deserve far better than the generic girlfriend/wife role she gets here) and a sense that perhaps this story is being told too late. Smith is fine, in a quiet, controlled performance, but the most truly memorable element here is the numbers that appear on screen before the final credits: About 28 percent of all NFL players, according to the league’s own actuaries, are expected to develop long-term cognitive problems. The movie murmurs, when it — and others — should be shouting.
Movie Review ★★½
‘Concussion,’ with Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Arliss Howard, Paul Reiser, Luke Wilson, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, David Morse, Albert Brooks. Written and directed by Peter Landesman, based on the article “Game Brain” by Jeanne Marie Laskas. 123 minutes. Rated PG-13 for thematic material including some disturbing images, and language. Several theaters.