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Concussion tries to build a strong case. It should have had a strong character.

Too many movies like this are driven by their agendas, not their characters.

Will Smith stars as the real doctor who tied playing football to brain injury in Concussion.
Will Smith stars as the real doctor who tied playing football to brain injury in Concussion.
Sony Pictures

There can be little doubt that Concussion is a movie with an agenda.

The movie, based on a 2009 article in GQ by Jeanne Marie Laskas, tells the story of real-life forensic pathologist Bennet Omalu (played by Will Smith) as he investigates the early deaths of several former professional football players, concludes that they suffered from a brain condition caused by the game, and receives heavy pushback from the NFL. Midway through the film, Omalu declares, with solemn certitude, that "God did not intend for us to play football." It’s an opinion the movie clearly shares.

Agenda movies are often tough sells. There’s always a risk that the agenda overwhelms the movie, and the production comes across as a lecture. Few people go to the movies to be lectured. But Concussion shows how to do an agenda movie the right way — and, eventually, how to do it the wrong way.

Concussion starts out as a character story, not a story with an agenda

Concussion stars Will Smith.
Will Smith plays Bennet Omalu in Concussion.
Sony Pictures

For its first hour, Concussion stays tightly focused on its main character rather than the agenda itself. Instead of a lecture, the movie takes the form of an investigative thriller.

Omalu methodically and obsessively works through the forensic evidence, eventually coming to the conclusion that head trauma — caused not only by concussions stemming from spectacular high-velocity hits, but also by lower impact but far more frequent subconcussive blows — resulted in famed Pittsburgh Steelers player Mike Webster (played by David Morse) developing a degenerative disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Omalu pursues the investigation on his own time, with his own money. He simply must know the truth.

Omalu's investigation draws the viewer in, because the movie works so hard to make him both sympathetic and compelling. The movie introduces the doctor on the witness stand, describing his impressive list of medical credentials and advanced degrees, before entering into a long-winded discussion of forensic evidence in a murder case where he concludes that a man charged with murder could not possibly have committed the crime. In the scene, he’s talking to the (mostly unseen) jury. But he’s really talking to the audience, explaining his expert status and doing a good deed to ensure the audience views him as a decent person.

From the very beginning, then, the film wants you to both like Omalu and view him as a legitimate expert. It helps, of course, that he is played by Smith, one of the most magnetic and likable movie stars working today.

Smith, who speaks with a reasonably convincing Nigerian accent, is less intensely charming than he typically is — but that still adds up to intensely charming. Ultimately, it is because Smith’s Omalu is so likable and trustworthy that his investigative journey in the film’s first half is so engaging.

Rather than explain its agenda, the movie dramatizes an individual journey of scientific discovery and revelation, driven by a compelling character who makes fascinating choices. It’s a movie that gets you to accept its argument by asking you to identify with its main character.

This is how the best agenda movies typically work

Erin Brockovich.
Erin Brockovich is a great example of how to do an agenda-driven movie the right way.
Universal Pictures

In some sense, this is how nearly all the best agenda movies work. Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich, for example, relies on the considerable charms of Julia Roberts in the title role to make its case against the film’s corporate villain, a polluting utility company. The movie works in large part because it makes Brockovich — the hard working single mom who stumbles upon a major case after arguing her way into a job with a legal firm — sympathetic and believable. You believe in her, and thus you believe in the movie’s message.

The same goes for The Insider, director Michael Mann’s great 1999 film about a tobacco-industry scientist turned anti-smoking whistleblower. The whistleblower himself, Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), is portrayed as both a stickler for scientific details and a testy, difficult person — but if anything that just humanizes his struggle even more. The movie also launders Wygand’s information through another character, 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), and it takes repeated steps to demonstrate Bergman's journalistic drive and integrity. As a viewer, you relate to the characters and trust them — and trust the movie’s message accordingly.

Indeed, this approach can backfire, as happened with Oliver Stone’s memorable 1987 take on the shady elements of high finance, Wall Street. The movie was supposed to be a blistering critique of that world and its greedy amorality, but Michael Douglas’s hard-charging corporate villain Gordon Gekko was so fascinating, so powerfully magnetic a personality, that he became a hero and an inspiration to a generation of financial-sector employees. They bought the wrong character — and the wrong message. "Greed is good" became the film's most famous line.

How Concussion ultimately falls short

Alec Baldwin and Will Smith in Concussion.
Every other character in the movie, including this one played by Alec Baldwin, is there to tell Omalu he's brilliant or to transparently try to get in his way.
Sony Pictures

Concussion tells a character story rather well, but only for the first half.

The trouble starts after Omalu reaches the conclusion that football-related head impacts caused brain damage in Mike Webber, the first dead player he examines in the film. The movie then sends him to see Dr. Steven DeKosky (Eddie Marsan), whom we are told is a top expert in neurological trauma.

Omalu delivers a long, impassioned monologue, complete with helpful visuals drawn on a marker-board, that ends with him declaring that "playing football killed Mike Webber." He's making a case to DeKosky, but, as in the jury scene, he’s really making his case to the audience. The movie becomes a lecture.

From there, it keeps on lecturing. Omalu confronts critics from the NFL and tells them he is right. He talks to friendly experts, like Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), who tell Omalu how right he is. He consults with Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks), a supportive colleague, who reiterates how wrong and terrible the NFL is, and how heroic — and, yes, right — Omalu is.

You can tell whether someone is good or bad based entirely on whether they support the NFL or whether they support Omalu. Omalu, who had pursued such an interesting line of investigative inquiry early in the film, stops making the sorts of choices that initially drove his character.

Equally frustrating is that the movie doesn’t do much at all with the NFL — sticking with a few brief, dull scenes inside the League’s offices and a handful of cutaways to Luke Wilson, playing NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. The New York Times reported in September that Sony, the studio behind the film, had softened the picture to make it go easier on the league, an accusation which the movie’s director, Peter Landesman, has denied. Regardless, the characterization of the League feels vague and under-dramatized.

That’s the real problem with Concussion’s second half in a nutshell. The movie stops developing its characters and starts simply employing them to explain its points. The agenda overwhelms the movie.

That doesn’t make the movie’s agenda wrong. Indeed, the case that football head trauma puts players at seriously heightened risk for brain damage is quite convincing. Laskas’s original GQ piece makes the case quite well, and unlike the movie — which inaccurately shows Omalu discovering and naming CTE, a disease that’s been known since the 1920s — it doesn’t fudge details in order to inflate Omalu’s credibility. If you just want Omalu’s story, Laskas’s magazine feature is the best place to get it.

But these choices do make Concussion somewhat less compelling, as both a movie and an argument. After a good start, the second half tries to make a strong case for the film's agenda — but what it really needs is a strong character.

Concussion is playing throughout the country.

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