It can be interesting to try to figure out why exactly certain Oscar-bait catches on and why other examples fail to grab the Academy’s attention. Or, rather, “interesting” may be a poor choice of word, since what usually holds a film back from being especially noteworthy in the Academy’s eyes is an entire lack of noteworthiness in its execution. Many filmmakers and film studios make films with the express purpose of appealing to award season sensibilities, and Concussion is quite clearly one of those films with a recent history true-story scandal premise and an aging actor trying to reclaim his reputation by taking on a dramatic role outside his usual comfort zone. And Concussion probably could have been a serious contender if it had attempted to say anything more than what is plainly obvious from a quick plot synopsis.
Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) is a Nigerian forensic pathologist working in Pittsburgh who is charged with the task of examining Mike Webster, a former NFL player who had been exhibiting erratic behavior reminiscent of dementia for a long time prior to his death. Upon performing an autopsy against the wishes of a Pittsburgh populace more concerned with honoring Webster’s career than the mystery of his premature demise, Omalu discovers extensive brain damage that he believes to be the result of repeated traumatic head injuries from Webster’s time in the NFL. After Omalu publishes his findings, the NFL brings the full force of their establishment down against him, and he must decide whether the threat to his career and his life in America is worth fighting to bring his research to the world.
The film is structured as a tale of an immigrant struggling against an American institution that he has little care for as an outsider, and functionally it does its job. Smith is surprisingly effective in a softer-spoken role than I would have thought him capable of, channeling his usual larger-than-life bravado into a character that feels weak in comparison to Smith’s action-hero archetypes but still determinedly brave compared to us mere mortals. Alec Baldwin and Albert Brooks offer great supporting turns as professional colleagues of Dr. Omalu, with Baldwin's character in particular coming across as sympathetic, despite his role in the narrative as the white guy Omalu needs to have around in order to be taken seriously.
But good acting is stifled by a script that, while not necessarily bad, could have used a few more drafts to become more than merely functional. Dialogue is effective at conveying plot points and moments of personal struggle for Omalu, but none of it is memorable except for an obnoxiously repeated mantra of “Tell the truth.” I think part of the reason why the actors come across so well is because they have to compensate for what little material the screenplay gives them. It also doesn’t help that, while Concussion does go after the NFL for purposely covering up the effects of the sport on its players’ heath, it tries to mitigate that unpopular sentiment by calling the sport “beautiful” in non-specific ways, as if that is supposed to make it okay that this life-ruining industry continues with a minimum of consequences for those who make the most money from it.
Concussion could have been a cutting exposé of a beloved American pastime if it had had the guts or the talent to get it right. However, the writing is not ambitious, nor does it take the risk of putting its weight against the NFL in a way that will cause people to sit up and take notice. The actors do their best to salvage a good film from the mediocrity, and they mostly succeed, but it ultimately isn’t enough to call the film much more than a decent attempt.