Polemic and melodrama crash head on in the shocking but unsatisfactory Concussion. The film (released in UK cinemas just a few days after this year’s Superbowl) makes it clear just how much harm American footballers do to one another – and also exposes the extreme lengths to which the NFL owners and administrators go to conceal evidence of brain damage from players and the public. At the same time, the film is a star vehicle for Will Smith. He plays Dr Bennet Ifeakandu Omalu, a brilliant, single-minded Nigerian pathologist whose investigations, paid for partly out of his own resources, reveal that many former players are suffering from chronic ill health as a result of blows to the head received on the field.
Smith gives a strangely fussy performance, as if he wants to be both the leading man and to play a character role. He portrays Omalu as a charismatic figure but also as a pettifogging one whose behaviour sometimes verges on comical. We see him encouraging his colleagues to “Tell the truth!” He is vilified and intimidated for having the temerity to question “America’s game” but the irony, spelt out bluntly, is that his courage “exemplifies everything it is to be an American”.
The suspicion lingers that this story might have been better told in a documentary than in a dramatic feature. The film also pulls its punches at times, for example when we hear Alec Baldwin’s doctor rhapsodising about the “Shakespearian” drama of American football.