Concussion is peopled by massive husks of men, violently panicked and terrified that they're losing their minds. They are right, in the most literal sense. Retired NFL players all, they've sustained repeated blows to the head and kept on going, feeding a country's insatiable appetite for football.
The film tells the story of Dr. Bennett Omalu (played with twinkling charm, confidence and just enough arrogance by Will Smith), the Nigerian-born forensic pathologist whose research led to the discovery that football is bad for the brain. But the hardest-hitting moments belong to those former players, guys like Mike Webster (David Morse), Justin Strzelczyk (played by retired NFL lineman Matthew Willig) and Andre Waters (Richard T. Jones). They're the anguished human faces of CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), a condition the NFL would have rather done anything but acknowledge.
This is a lonely-voice-in-the-wilderness movie, in which a scientist stumbles upon a paradigm-shifting truth that no one wants to hear. Think The Insider, with the NFL playing the role of the tobacco industry (and without the journalism angle).
Concussion isn't as lyrical or operatic as that great Michael Mann movie, but it is a deftly told and economical story, written and directed by Peter Landesman, who previously made the JFK assassination drama Parkland. It knows where the drama lies in the Omalu/CTE story, and it gets there with intelligent efficiency and passion.
Omalu is an outsider to both NFL mania and the Steelers-mad Pittsburgh community where he lives and works. Sometimes it takes a fresh pair of eyes to see what's out in the open and do something about it. This theme is also central to Spotlight, in which a Jewish Boston newbie, Marty Baron, takes over the Globe and oversees the paper's investigation of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Unlike Baron, though, Omalu doesn't really know what he getting into.
"The NFL owns a day of the week," explains Omalu's mentor, Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks, nailing the latest in his recent series of stellar character roles). "The same day the church used to own." Then there's Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), the former Steelers team doctor and a lifelong football fanatic who teams up with Omalu: "It is a mindless, violent game. And then it's Shakespeare." As he speaks we see a clip of legendary Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw gracefully scrambling out of trouble.
This is where Concussion is at its best. It acknowledges the sport's fervent appeal, the addictive quality that keeps so many people glued to their couches every Sunday (plus what now seems like every other weeknight). Does anyone want to hear that the thing they love causes brain damage? Of course not. The NFL certainly didn't want the cat out of the bag. (Dallas' Luke Wilson doesn't have a whole to do here as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell). The question of what the league knew, when they knew it and how hard they fought to keep it quiet is central here, and handled in greater detail in the 2013 Frontline documentary League of Denial.
In this sense Concussion harks back to a story that will always have legs, the ornately embellished battle of David and Goliath. The NFL is gargantuan, popular and rich. Omalu is one doctor with an unpopular discovery. He doesn't have a slingshot. His weapon, which not even the league can now deny, is the truth.