By Justin Stewart

Dir. Peter Landesman, U.S., Sony

Though it has done little to dent the popularity of the sports league and spectacle that, in the words of one character in the new film Concussion, “owns a day of the week,” the word is out and has been for a while—football kills. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a degenerative brain disease resulting from repetitive brain injury, the kind football players endure dozens of times every game. The symptoms of CTE, which can take years to manifest, resemble those of dementia, and have led to a horrifyingly long list of suicides among NFL players, including hall-of-famers Mike Webster and Junior Seau. CTE can only be identified post-mortem; victims including Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson (played in Concussion by Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), who shot himself in the chest so as to preserve his brain for study (CTE was the confirmed cause), have proved invaluable to the research into the disease after their deaths. Beyond being a national tragedy, this is all bad press for the multibillion dollar NFL, who must’ve known something was up sooner even if they didn’t have a name for it, and are settling a lawsuit brought by about 5,000 former players for hundreds of millions of dollars.

The scandal’s uncovering has moved relatively rapidly (boats against the current of NFL power and money) from medical journals to the front page of the New York Times (numerous times, with rigorous reporting by Ken Belson and others) to the book and documentary League of Denial, produced by PBS’s Frontline with the sports network ESPN as a partner before the latter pulled out after pressure from the NFL. What happens next is unclear, but Sony has now provided Hollywood’s take, and it deserves credit for addressing such a tough and serious topic in this Christmas Day release. The plaudits for bravery should be tempered by the revelation in hacked emails that Sony softened its condemnation of the league and strove to “develop messaging with the help of an NFL consultant,” though writer-director Peter Landesman’s explanation that they just wanted to protect their film from accusations of imbalance and over-fictionalization is mostly convincing. Concussion hits the league surprisingly hard, actually—you don’t exit with a rosy view of the deceptive mega-corporation.

If anything’s soft in Concussion, it’s the storytelling and conventionalism of the filmmaking. Landesman and producers Ridley and Giannina Facio-Scott have used as their source Jeanne Marie Laskas’s article “Game Brain,” and they’ve framed the film as the story of a whistleblower: Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith), the Nigerian forensic pathologist who discovered and named CTE in 2002. The specifics of the disease, Omalu’s (and others’) work on it, and the NFL’s nefariousness are best gleaned from League of Denial; Concussion uneasily incorporates them into a treacly, not wholly unappealing immigrant story of Omalu’s acclimation to America, his idealization of which gets bruised but not defeated as his discoveries threaten the reputation of a pastime beloved by a nation angrily resistant to criticism from “outsiders.” The balancing act is awkward. Landesman leans heavily on montages that juxtapose footage of violent, commonplace tackles and headshots (mixing ESPN’s repugnant “Jacked Up Hits” segment with practice drills and home video footage of high school and Pee Wee league game action) with images of Smith visibly coming to a full realization of the problem. The research is communicated through a semi-condescending mix of dramatic “My God!” microscope revelations and science museum field-trip-style explanations like a miniature brain in a jar and comparisons to the stronger brain-cushioning anatomies of woodpeckers and other animals.

Concussion offers scraps of screen time to CTE victims in the dramatized final stages of their disease (that is, right before suicide), like Duerson and David Morse’s Webster, the great Steeler and pride of Pittsburgh who is seen reduced to living out of a pickup in a field, huffing solvents and gluing teeth back into his head before he tases himself into a forced heart attack. He is Omalu’s first CTE-related autopsy, and the doctor is so intrigued by Webster’s mysterious downfall that he finances the follow-up research himself. Matt Willig, reminiscent of hulking footballer/actor Lyle Alzado, plays fellow real-life Steeler Justin Strzelczyk, who tries to help Webster before succumbing himself, terrorizing his family and committing suicide. Mostly, though, Concussion fixates on Omalu, but really Smith, who racks up a good half-dozen reel-worthy speeches and scenes that announce themselves as Acting Moments more loudly each time, culminating in a solo wall-smashing breakdown. Smith’s acting is efficient and lifelike, with Omalu’s accent replicated with care down to each syllable, but the calculation behind every move is felt in both those finger-wagging “Tell the truth!” lectures and in the many humanizing attempts at levity, in which the comedy relies on the bookish, football-ignorant, lab-bound doctor’s friction with the American social norms he so desperately wishes to “fake.”

The film’s least successful subplot aims for that lightly fumbling comedic sweet spot, and concerns Omalu’s courtship of Prema Mutiso (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a fellow immigrant whom he takes in as a boarder at first, and eventually proposes to and impregnates. Pointing out the items in his townhouse when first showing her around her new lodgings, he forgets himself and in the kitchen nervously finishes, “and those are my peaches.” Smith and Mbatha-Raw, the latter so hard to look away from in Belle and Beyond the Lights, are both charismatic, but their scenes are without fail the film’s most banal, and her gifts are wasted on this material. They adorably clash at first. He doesn’t watch television; she does. He doesn’t dance, but she takes him clubbing, where naturally he finds a groove (such are the indignities the highly learned must endure at the hands of popular entertainment). For all we know, Omalu and Mutiso’s is the most passionate romance in history, but in Concussion it’s obligatory screenplay box-checking.

Concussion is better when Omalu is planning, fretting, and joshing with his mentor in the Allegheny County Coroner’s office, the famed Dr. Cyril Wecht, played by an arch and aggressively bald Albert Brooks, and the former NFL company man turned sympathetic fellow-thinking doctor, Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin, in an uninspired bit of casting). The ABs echo each other, with Baldwin exclaiming “You’re not American; you’re not even African-American!” and Brooks later telling Omalu, “You’ll be an American hero.” Omalu replies he’s not an American. “Even better!” Later in the film, Baldwin has the burden of explaining the appeal of football to Omalu, a crucial inclusion Landesman (or whoever) was smart to put in, even if it may have been one of the concessions given the NFL (just my speculation). Admitting it can be violent and boring, he says that when a beautifully executed play call or feat of athleticism or gamesmanship arises, “It’s Shakespeare;” this counterbalances Wecht’s more cynical take that the NFL is an American addiction “like food.”

Smuggling social criticism into a seemingly conventional drama is nothing new. To take just one (unfairly much better) example, Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life balanced character study and powerful epic metaphors while ringing alarm bells about drug addiction. But no matter how hard Smith acts, and how many times the screenplay mentions the word “American” or “America,” Concussion only shows Omalu without studying him. The tragedy of CTE and the NFL’s transparent attempts to obfuscate and delay a full reckoning are a laudable topic for a big Hollywood release, but Concussion’s clumsy attempts to address that and everything else besides are underserved by the prosaic, bets-hedging filmmaking.