Review: 'Concussion' is crowd pleaser built upon an issue long ignored

Alec Baldwin, left, plays a former team doctor seeing the light and Will Smith a doctor bringing the trouble forward.
Alec Baldwin, left, plays a former team doctor seeing the light and Will Smith a doctor bringing the trouble forward.
Published Dec. 22, 2015

After recently viewing the National Football League drama Concussion on a screener DVD, my television coincidentally flipped to that Sunday night's game.

Peter Landesman's movie made me see the game differently, suspiciously, even guiltily. Concussion lays out a warning indictment of the NFL's handling of brain damage caused by on-field collisions, from the perspective of the doctor discovering a pattern of disease (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), and the league's intent to quiet him.

Rather than a documentary that many fans wouldn't see, Concussion goes the celebrity route with Will Smith's Golden Globe-nominated portrayal of Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Pittsburgh pathologist whose 2002 autopsy of Steelers Hall of Fame center Mike Webster kicked off an overdue challenge to NFL safety and treatment procedures.

On television, players were being flagged for helmet hits, or sidelined and inspected for concussion symptoms. Concussion left me wondering if it's enough, and for an instant wondering why I still watch.

Smith's presence gives Concussion a good chance of getting its message spread. He also brings star necessities causing slack in Concussion's otherwise tight atmosphere, notably an interrupting romance and marriage (although Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays worried well). Spotlight is proof that focus makes an issues movie work. Concussion sometimes softens its blows like the NFL should.

Not when Landesman sketches the mental decline of retired NFL players, though. David Morse haunts the movie as Webster, reduced to living in his truck, filthy and huffing gasoline to fight the pain and voices in his head. Concussion isn't shy about naming names, from former player Dave Duerson (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a league denier turned victim, to commissioner Roger Goodell (Luke Wilson).

As usual, Smith makes a compelling hero to follow, modestly righteous, prone to those frustrated outbursts making for good awards show clips. Omalu's Nigerian background adds a melodic accent to the actor's natural charm. He's supported well by Albert Brooks as Omalu's droll mentor, and Alec Baldwin as a former Steelers team doctor seeing the light.

Concussion is essentially Erin Brockovich with shoulder pads, a crowd pleaser built upon an issue long ignored. On any given Sunday (or Monday, Thursday, whenever and wherever refs blow whistles), football players are getting seriously hurt, their futures dying a little, one helmet blow at a time.

Anyone believing otherwise after seeing Landesman's movie needs their head examined.

Contact Steve Persall at or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.