Will Smith is up for a Golden Globe as Best Actor for Concussion. And he deserves highest of praise for playing real-life forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian immigrant with no knowledge of football who became the NFL’s worst nightmare. Why? As an outsider in the Pittsburgh coroner’s office — he infuriates co-workers by speaking gently to the bodies he dissects believing the dead have a story to tell — the good doctor steps on important toes.
He runs tests on the brain of Iron Mike Webster (a superb David Morse), the former Hall of Fame center for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and finds that the head-butting Webster took on the field led to memory loss, dementia and his untimely death. Naming the disorder chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), Omalu crusades to warn players, pro and amateur, of a condition that could not be detected until after a patient’s death. To Omalu, getting dinged up from repeated blows to the head must cease being a source of pride for players and a way to win cheers from an ignorant crowd. Players need to know what they’re up against.
Omalu gets support from his boss, Cyril Wecht, played by a scene-stealing, wickedly wry Albert Brooks, who bemoans that Sundays used to be owned by God, not the NFL. And he wins over Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), a former Steelers doctor seeking redemption for sending so many concussion victims back in the game. But there are profits to protect here, and the NFL — repped by Luke Wilson as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell — hits back hard, threatening Omalu’s job and his stellar reputation.
It’s a gripping story, most devastating when we see rugged players such as Justin Strzelczyk (Matthew Willig) and Dave Duerson (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) suffer breakdowns for reasons that don’t show up on brain scans. Director Peter Landesman (Parkland), who also wrote the script, undercuts it with plodding pacing, endless shots of talking heads, a sermonizing tone, and wan interludes with Omalu and his wife, Parma (a beautiful but criminally wasted Gugu Mbatha-Raw). The film goes slack when its screws most need to tighten. Luckily, Smith — flawless in accent and commitment to Omalu’s worthy cause — grips you from first to last. Hardly mandatory pre-Super Bowl viewing for football junkies. But wait. Maybe it should be.