Awards season is traditionally the time for filmmakers to get their teeth into the meaty issues that they hope will draw the admiring gaze of audiences and voting committees alike. Concussion follows the established playbook to such a degree that it turns an incendiary story – an exposé that struck at the heart of America’s national sport, first detailed in GQ article ‘Game Brain’ by Jeanne Marie Laskas – into something of a damp squib.
This dulling of spirit has nothing to do with star Will Smith. He is excellent as Nigerian-born pathologist Dr Bennet Omalu, whose attention-to-detail uncovers the terrible fact that professional American football players are suffering lasting brain damage categorically denied by the NFL. With a flawless accent and powerful dignity, Smith does justice to a man whose tireless fight for the truth deserves universal respect.
Unfortunately, when the film’s focus moves from Omalu’s work to his personal life – including his relationship with wife Prema (an underused Gugu Mbatha-Raw) – and the scrambling machinations of the NFL, the flat, plodding nature of the narrative reveals itself. It is so ruthlessly earnest, so bogged down in its own sense of worth, that it lacks the vital, passionate punch of similarly-themed contemporaries like Spotlight and Truth.
This is compounded by the fact that writer-director Peter Landesman (Parkland) also attempts to use this as a celebration of the enduring dominance of the American Dream. ‘I never wanted anything as much as I wanted to be an American,’ intones Omalu in just one of the many clunky, overblown lines expounding the supposed superiority of this great nation which, it is not-so-subtly implied, has graciously afforded an outsider the opportunity to speak out against injustice.
It’s all served up without the slightest flicker of irony that it is only to such educated and ambitious individuals that America extends this warm welcome. While this doesn’t detract from Dr Omalu’s towering achievements, it does lend his story an uneasy, jingoistic tone at odds with his own liberal outlook.
UK release: February 12, 2016
This review was originally published by The List