Monday, December 28, 2015

Concussion (2015)

Film: Concussion (2015)
Stars: Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, David Morse, Mike O'Malley, Albert Brooks
Director: Peter Landesman
Oscar History: No nominations
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars

Do you ever run into a situation where you really want to like a film because of the issues that it brings up, but you just can’t because it, well, isn’t any good?  Usually I struggle with this scenario during documentaries, where I want to root for the subject but can’t because the argument, even one I believe in, isn’t coming across as particularly compelling or well-organized.  This happens with narrative films as well, however, as I was remind of this past weekend with Concussion, the latest ploy by Will Smith to win an Oscar to go along with his hundreds of millions and international world dominance (you just know a Senate seat is about a decade to go after he lands the shiny gold guy).  The film, chronicling Dr. Bennet Omalu's (Smith) groundbreaking look into the effects of football on the brain, is something that feels like a hot-button that is actually happening in time with the hot-button and not a few years late like Hollywood is wont to do, but it’s a dull, overly preachy film that makes its hero too saintly and its villains almost comically evil.  Hokey dialogue and terrible acting combine to make what is an interesting idea for a picture seem about as lifeless as it possibly could get.

(Real Life Doesn’t Have Spoilers) The film follows Dr. Omalu as he realizes, through a series of autopsies, that football and the continuous head trauma that the sport entails causes severe brain damage, leaving the football players suffering from depression, paranoia, delusions, and frequently from self-inflicted death or substance abuse.  The movie is spelled out in the same sort of vein as some of the great crusader-dramas like Silkwood or Erin Brockovich, but here we have an issue that doesn’t seem as clear-cut as clean water or workplace safety (or maybe my Millennial perspective is showing a little bit here as I don’t recall those being issues in those eras since I wasn’t old or even born for one of them).  The film takes place when the NFL is still deeply engrained into our national psyche-everyone watches the Super Bowl and stars like Russell Wilson, Tom Brady, and Peyton Manning have universal name recognition.

I think the bigger thing about the film, at least the part that makes you discuss the subject when you leave, actually achieves the mark.  Through deeply defined black-and-white arguments, the film makes you wonder if the glorification of knocking around other human beings senselessly in sports like football, boxing, and hockey, is remotely worth the squeeze.  It feels in many ways, especially with this scientific knowledge, that we haven’t progressed much beyond that of the gladiators, where men beat each other bloody in order to attract the largest prize, and honestly I feel like this too shall come to pass as more and more people realize the long-term effects.  I got into an argument with someone after the movie who said such a postulation was ridiculous and would never happen in our lifetimes, but many people not so long ago said the same thing about people quitting smoking, gay marriage, and having a black president so never-say-never, particularly when the evidence is as obvious as Concussion can make it.  A day not too far off may occur when the NFL is seen at the very least in the same way that boxing is today-something clearly tainted by the effects of the trauma and not watched by all.

But the issue aside, the film itself is pretty bad.  The cinematography may be some of the worst of the year, and is frequently shot in far-too-close close-ups that seem as if the movie is cutting off a part of the actor's face.  The acting, even from people as watchable as Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Albert Brooks, is overcooked and we frequently get long, drawn-out speeches about how noble everyone around them is and, just to cover their butts, how magical football is and how they get the sacrifice being made by not playing it.  Smith and costar Alec Baldwin are the worst at this, and Baldwin’s performance is particularly egregious because he seems to not have any idea what his characters’ motives are since he instantly turns over a new leaf a quarter of the way through the film but for little apparent reason.  The entire piece celebrating football as a grand art-form is particularly odd because it feels a bit like celebrating and admonishing the same thing, honestly for the same reasons.  The film doesn’t end with Will Smith’s doctor finally convincing those around them that making a bunch of men break each other’s bodies down isn’t worth it, but instead he has to first adhere to the old boys’ mentality of stating that it’s easy to understand why they won’t give up their bloodlust.  Honestly-it quite frankly feels like this was just asking the movie to age poorly, as either we’ll look at this as an issue that no one cared about the ramifications of (like a film warning against war while also loving it-ask critics what they think of American Sniper in ten years) or it will look horribly sympathetic to an unworthy cause (like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner when we spend way too much time understanding the bigotry of the main characters and congratulating them on getting over their bigotry).  All-in-all, this is a film that hopefully brings up an important issue through the lens of a superstar actor taking it on, but for me the actual film itself lends nothing artistically to the cinematic conversation.

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