“Concussion” details NFL’s dodgy record on head injuries

How do you piss off a sporting and media titan such as the National Football League?

Well, you shoot a mainstream biographical sports drama detailing the league’s history with denying ties between its former and current players’ deteriorating mental health and the game’s aggressive, head-first style of play. You can also portray the downward spiraling of several decorated players resulting from the multiple concussions that they sustained during their respective careers. Finally, you can title the film “Concussion,” cast superstar actor Will Smith as the lead, and charge head first at the league for its ongoing denial of an epidemic of neurological disease among its players.

The film, directed and written by Peter Landesman (“Parkland,” “Kill the Messenger”), is based on journalist Jeanne Marie Laskas’ Sept. 14, 2009 article for GQ magazine, entitled “Game Brain.” The film follows the story of Nigerian forensic pathologist and neuropathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu’s (Will Smith) real-life discovery of CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) in Dr. Cyril Wecht’s (Albert Brooks) Pittsburgh-based coroner practice. CTE is now an established degenerative neurological disease caused by severe impacts to the head.

Upon learning of Pittsburgh Steelers’ Hall of Fame center Mike Webster’s (David Morse) disturbing downfall, Omalu requests to analyze his brain for signs of trauma or early Alzheimer’s.

Omalu arrives at a frightening diagnosis once he reveals through a series of laboratory tests that Webster’s cognitive functions have been “strangled” by “killer proteins” resulting from repeated blows to the head. Even worse, he is not an isolated case among former professional football players.

Reality turns out to be much worse as several more former players also succumb to the symptoms of CTE in the form of gruesome suicides. Former Steelers’ offensive tackle Justin Strzelczyk (Matthew Willig), guard Terry Long, and late Philadelphia Eagles safety Andre Waters (Richard T. Jones) also show similar signs of CTE in their autopsy reports, leading to Omalu’s decision to publish his research and pursue an understanding with the National Football League on the dangers of the sport.

Omalu is allied with former Steelers team doctor Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), who has recently distanced himself from the league, and accomplished neurologist Dr. Steven T. DeKosky (Eddie Marsan) in his career-threatening battle against an increasingly defiant National Football League.

Smith’s engrossing performance as Omalu rivals, if not surpasses, with urgency and conviction any of his previous roles in films such as “I Am Legend” and “The Pursuit of Happyness.” Meanwhile, Gugu Mbatha-Raw (“Doctor Who,” “Belle”) executes the role of Prema Mutiso, Omalu’s love interest, with an equal urgency, while supporting the backbone of Omalu’s research.

Although the love story in “Concussion” obstructs the film’s focus on CTE and player’s rights, Mutiso delivers the most critical line to a distressed Omalu riverside in Pittsburgh: “If you don’t speak for the dead, who will?” The line is one of two turning points in the film for Omalu.

Smith’s supporting cast is superb with a charismatic and wise-cracking Albert Brooks (“Finding Nemo”) as Dr. Wecht, and a less condescending Alec Baldwin (“The Hunt for Red October,” “The Departed”) as Dr. Bailes. Both actors execute a range of gripping scenes throughout the film’s two hour duration, while adding in some timely humor to diffuse the film’s most intense moments.

Cinematographer Salvatore Totino’s (“The Da Vinci Code,” “Any Given Sunday”) employment of shadows throughout the film produces a haunting aura particularly around Omalu; meanwhile the afflicted Webster is bathed in a soft glow of a sepia tone, drawing a contrast within the film between the living and the dead. Totino’s use of soft light and shadow is subtle enough to let the acting convey the emotions of the scenes, yet strong enough to build tension, and accentuate a joyful moment.

When the film is not at a dead silence during its most harrowing scenes, James Newton Howard’s (“The Hunger Games,” “The Dark Night”) score crescendos and falls poignantly according to the nature of the scene without calling too much attention to itself. The score and soundtrack of “Concussion” is mostly unmemorable and limited; however, it does complement the film during its most distressing scenes. Soul singer Leon Bridges also contributes an original song, entitled “So Long,” as one of the only songs with vocals featured in the film.

Although the love story subplot muddles the main plot, this is Smith’s most compelling and honest performance yet and is no doubt buoyed by strong screenwriting and performances from Morse, Baldwin, and Mbatha-Raw.

The impacts of “Concussion” will be felt across the National Football League, as a wide audience will connect with the tragic stories of the former players suffering from CTE. The film is at its strongest (and hard to watch) when it is depicting the impacts of CTE to the players and their families through captivating performances and (mostly) true storytelling, thanks in large part to the families who agreed to let the film portray their stories.

“Concussion” is now available on DVD and Blu-ray, and for digital download in movie retailers worldwide.