This unabashed message movie is a failure worth a look – conceptually bold in a way that almost makes up for its frequent ineptitude. The writer-director Peter Landesman is better known as an investigative journalist than as a filmmaker, a background that undoubtedly comes in handy in delivering a muckraking expose of the dangers of American football. Will Smith plays the real-life Pittsburgh pathologist Bennet Omalu, an immigrant from Nigeria whose groundbreaking research in the early 2000s helped prove that head injuries sustained by players can lead to brain damage or premature death.
The film is also a showcase for Smith, who seems determined as ever to win himself an Oscar. Alas, he's much less impressive here than he was as a debonair conman in last year's overlooked romantic comedy Focus: though not exactly bad, he's earnest to a fault, refusing to allow Omalu any swagger despite a script that paints him as a polymathic genius with ace deductive skills. Nor is there any heat in his love scenes with Gugu Mbatha-Raw, whose role largely consists of gazing at Omalu soulfully and urging him on when he falters in his scientific quest.
Most of the name actors in the supporting cast are equally ill-served, including Albert Brooks, who plays Omalu's mentor Dr Cyril Wecht in a bald cap, plastered-down hair and a make-up job so odd that I might not have recognised him if not for his unmistakable querulous voice. Alec Baldwin is even less persuasive as a former NFL team doctor who becomes a reluctant ally, his Southern accent much shakier than Smith's Nigerian one.
Visually, Concussion is flat enough to make you long for a director like Michael Mann, who did wonders with a parallel subject in his tobacco industry expose The Insider. Landesman approximates a familiar notion of "prestige" filmmaking: stirring music, sombre lighting, and close-ups of Smith's face burning with righteous passion. Yet none of this generates any cinematic energy – that is, until the very last scene, which sums up the film's central conflict so bluntly it comes as a shock.
By this point, it's clear that Concussion is ultimately a film about the struggle to assimilate – to adopt the values of a society not originally your own. Omalu is portrayed as a true believer in the American Dream, believing he will be recognised for his talents and his commitment to the truth. Yet in pitting himself against powerful vested interests, he all but guarantees his status as an outsider: the more he works to demonstrate the justice of his cause, the less he fits into American society, let alone football-mad Pittsburgh.