Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Concussion (2016) - Movie Review

This film is about American football or, as we in Australia call it, 'Baby’s First Ball Sport'. All that padding, the overblown halftime shows, the terminology that makes calculus look straight forward by comparison; I don’t ‘get’ the point of most sports to begin with, but this especially. Or, at the very least, its sheer enormity in terms of deemed importance. Then again, that’s probably a side effect of growing up where the national sport (excluding cricket and outrunning the cassowary) is essentially the same thing only we don’t think little things like protective gear are necessary. Save for cups because, when given the option to protect only one head, only one in a million would choose a helmet. Anyway, long story short, this is going to be another one of those situations where I am going to be a bit more perplexed than the general populace about the importance of the film’s subject matter. Well, as far as the reason why the people involved are getting permanently injured, at least.

The plot: After famed football legend Mike Webster (David Morse) is found dead from an apparent suicide, pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) discovers that he had suffered from severe brain damage, something that is quickly becoming a pattern amongst long-time football players. When he publishes his findings, the NFL do everything in their power to suppress his research and bury the evidence. Now, it is up to Bennet, his mentor Cyril (Albert Brooks) and former NFL physician Julian (Alec Baldwin) to fight back and let the unfortunate truth be known about America’s national sport.

Even considering the statements I’ve made about the guy in the past, I don’t think I will ever not be happy to see Will Smith in a feature film. Hell, for as many times as After Earth shat the bed, he still gave us the jarringly funny "PERMISSION DENIED!" scene. Here, he is probably at his most subdued since probably After Earth except here he isn’t boring. Instead, considering he spends most of the film trying to convince other people to see his perspective, he makes use of his natural charisma and brings serious intensity in certain scenes. This is the kind of conviction I want from my Oscar bait.

Out of the rest of the cast, the only one who comes close to him would probably be David Morse. My word, the heartbreak you feel for his character gets kind of crushing at times with how well he plays mental anguish. Quite a few of the actors play the same card, like Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje and Richard T. Jones as two other former NFL players, but Morse nails it better than the others. Albert Brooks, unconvincing bald cap notwithstanding, plays well against Smith, making for some decent banter as well as a nice mentor-protégé relationship that feels as natural as can be expected. The increasingly rarer appearance by Alec Baldwin, if nothing else, shows why he needs to keep working as he balances his character’s morality and his ingrained loyalty to the great American pastime remarkably well.

And speaking of the great American pastime, this film can get a little… weird with its approach to the subject of what the NFL doesn’t want to acknowledge. I mean, between someone literally saying that “playing football killed [him]” and stress induced from stalkers doing terrible things to Prema, things get a tad overblown at times. I wouldn’t be surprised if this film was marketed under the name ‘Football Madness’ in certain countries. This isn’t helped by how this whole premise of fighting against a massive system that won’t admit to its own wrongdoings has been time and time again. Hell, we got the same deal not that long ago with Truth and even last month's Spotlight. This comes equipped with the usual bells & whistles of oppression and prejudice that come with most of these anti-establishment pieces, but it actually manages to balance out its more lecturing moments with genuine pathos. There are some admitted stumbling points, like how Bennet’s relationship with Prema is pretty poorly set up. I mean, the film doesn’t make it all that clear how said relationship even started, and some fairly major developments like becoming pregnant are given to the audience as throw-aways. However, despite all that, the writing has just enough earnestness and the actors have more than enough passion to carry it out, most of that thanks to Will Smith’s not knowing how to waste his charisma… most of the time, at least.

For the first third of the film, that familiar feeling of rising bile about the subject matter started to make itself known once the cover-up job became more pronounced. Now, even without any real connection to American football aside from playing a bit of unauthorised gridiron in high school (and getting a concussion, oddly enough), I associated that feeling with just how big the enemy was in this film. Yeah, in my twisted cement mixer of a brain, the NFL made for a more imposing threat than the Catholic Church. For the love of God, don’t close the browser just yet; I can justify this. I have seen more than enough times just how immense the influence of football is over in the U.S., and even beyond their borders. It might as well be a bona fide religion at this rate, considering how people adhere to its doctrine; thou shalt not like a player that changes from your team to another and what not. The film itself even makes note of this, with Julian mentioning how Sunday used to belong to the Church until football took it over. With this in mind, probably the film’s biggest plus in terms of writing is how, even if it definitely goes against the NFL’s practices in keeping these medical records secret, it isn’t advocating for just eradicating the entire league. All that the main characters want is for the truth to be made known.

Here’s where it gets peculiar, though. Throughout the course of the film, the sport is spoken of with such reverence and importance that, for a second, it almost makes the notion of injury in the line of fire to be a justifiable sacrifice. I mean, in the same way that losing a few soldiers in order to win a war is justifiable; certainly not by me, but the argument can be made. Bringing in a direct comparison to religion was probably apropos because, despite the odds given at nearly 1/4th of all players will suffer from some form of prolonged brain damage, people are still willing to participate, almost like it was written on stone tablets that man was meant to tackle other man to ground to win drinking cup.

And yet, both with how it is portrayed in the film and how people are sports-obsessed on the other side of the screen, it’s kind of understandable why they would. Risking one’s life in order to do what one felt they were put on this earth to do is a natural part of being human, much the same way that Bennet is effectively risking his own to bring the facts to public attention. In that way, it manages to one-up Spotlight in terms of portraying its core vice: It manages to even give a certain justifiable reasoning for why it is done in the first place. Then again, I’m kind of thankful that Spotlight didn’t try to make paedophilia sound appealing, but my point remains.

All in all, while it can definitely be preachy in spots, the strong acting and mostly able-bodied writing manage to balance it out. Will Smith is once again given the opportunity to essentially let his charisma carry a film, something that the man hasn’t lost his touch for in the slightest, and the script and supporting cast around him deliver on what is ultimately a tried-and-true formula but giving it enough of a spin to warrant its own existence.

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