One of the few truly incendiary revelations to come out of the Sony Pictures Entertainment hacking scandal was the series of emails that suggested the company had “softened” some of the points made by the Concussion screenplay against the National Football League. According to Ken Belson of The New York Times, this was to market “the film more as a whistle-blower story, rather than a condemnation of football or the league.” Never mind that a whistle-blower story that doesn’t lean on condemnation seems inherently impossible, on the evidence of what made it to the screen, the NFL unmistakably emerges as the villain in this David-versus-Goliath story, even if the entertainment machine is indeed prodded with kid gloves.
Concussion dry-wheezes out of the gate with a show of canned pathos. Before a crowded room of fans, Mike Webster (David Morse) reminisces about his time in the NFL. The speech is practically a state of the union address, and as the maudlin strings on the soundtrack make clear, his days are numbered. Indeed, Webster is soon revealed to be living out of his car, estranged from family and friends, and coping with pains that former Steelers physician Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin) seems either unable or too frightened to diagnose. Two scenes later and Webster has tasered himself to oblivion. Or, at least, to wherever Ron Howard casting calls are conducted, which is the only possible explanation for why—spoiler alert!—he reappears at film’s end in spectral form, to cloyingly flatter forensic pathologist Bennet Omalu’s (Will Smith) devotion to the belief that “God did not intend for us to play football.”
For a spell, the film does seem as if it’s only interested in indirectly condemning the NFL. Webster is the first of many golden boys of the sport to fall throughout the film, and given the horror-movie music that scores their physical and mental despair and the serrated edge of the film’s cutting, it’s as if these men are succumbing less to a neurodegenerative disease, namely chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), than to some kind of rage virus. The effect is almost perversely avant-garde: to convey the horrific effects of football on the human body as sensorial impressions.
Soon, though, it becomes evident that the film isn’t exactly shy about taking on the NFL, only that it’s contrived in its methods. The tacky and loose means by which director Peter Landesman’s platitudinous screenplay dances around what ails the story’s football players is just one cog in a whirligig of pat representations. The interests of the NFL, not unfairly, are likened to those of Big Tobacco, but the consumers of the sport are laughably portrayed as ravenous masses. When Justin Strzelczyk (Matt Willig) chokes his wife in front of their children before getting into his car and driving into oncoming traffic, it’s as if our own bloodlust is to blame for his demise. (In real life, Strzelczyk was divorced and living away from his wife at the time of his death.)
At the center of all this thin gruel is Omalu, the first to publish findings of CTE in American football players. The Nigerian émigré is introduced inside a court room testifying as a witness on a case and, in turn, cutely establishing his bona fides for the audience. The subsequent scene, in which he drives home while sticking his hand out the window and happily soaking in the rays of the sun with Nell-like abandon, sets up the simplistic tenor with which the man is characterized. Later, as he holds up a water-filled mason jar with fruit inside so as to illustrate to his future wife, Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the effects of blunt-force trauma on the brain, one may be excused for feeling concussed by the film’s almost childish sense of instruction.
Inside the rooms where Omalu performs his autopsies, this God-fearing saint of a man speaks to the corpses that lie before him, asking them to reveal to him the truth about their death. In a way, the careful means by which these autopsies are framed come to mirror the nobly proportioned ways in which Omalu stands up to the NFL. The nefarious agents of the league remain vaporous throughout, at once within the saintly Omalu’s reach and just outside of it. Bennet wins, of course, but only insofar as his voice is finally heard. Just as a better film would have given fuller shape to his convictions and disillusionments, one understands, too, that a ruder man and film are needed to truly hit the football entertainment machine as hard as it deserves.