Thursday, 11 February 2016

Hard-knock life: "Concussion"

Concussion is another of this season's examples of Hollywood seizing upon real-world reportage and turning it into naggingly pat multiplex entertainment, framed less to convey the original, rather more critical message than to make a star and a democracy look good. That star is Will Smith, whose position among the A-list firmament has come to look shaky of late; here, he's playing Dr. Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian-born, Pittsburgh-based pathologist who exposed a major cover-up within the ranks of the National Football League. (That's right: it's Spotlight for jocks.) After an opening courtroom scene in which the doctor is invited to list his qualifications so onlooking hayseeds have no doubt who their hero for the evening will be, Omalu lands the curious case of Mike Webster (David Morse), a once-robust local football legend who spent his retirement huffing glue to keep his demons at bay. Webber's deterioration is a conundrum only a dogged maverick can solve, and it's one that brings this Omalu into conflict with not just the NFL, but Big Government in all its forms.

Writer-director Peter Landesman, who scripted last year's smart Kill the Messenger, is savvy enough to couch at least the first half of his story as a procedural in the enduringly popular CSI/NCIS vein, even casting CSI:NY hotshot Hill Harper by way of continuation. There's lots of Dr. Will peering into microscopes and setting about cadavers with sharp knives - though, strangely, nothing quite as grisly as one gets even on network TV. (The film reveals its own Achilles heel early: it's just too clean-cut.) By way of compensation, some heavyweight acting talent has been co-opted to listen to the star explaining aspects of anatomy in his new-build Nigerian accent: Morse (working typically hard beneath layers of latex scar tissue) disappears early on, but Alec Baldwin and Eddie Marsan show up for thinly characterised walk-ons, and Albert Brooks mines a little deeper as Smith's mentor Cyril Wecht.

Yet the narrative - originally played out upon the restrained pages of the American medical journal Neuropathy - has clearly had to be trumped up in places for easier two-hour consumption. Another Steelers warhorse has to crack up or go down every five minutes to provide Omalu with corroborating evidence: a compression of time that makes the mass carnage of Midsomer Murders come to seem like gritty realism. Pounding music is laid over the scene in which the good doctor cracks the case while watching football highlights. And lest all this medical roughhousing put off the sensitive viewer, Omalu's church installs a pliable Kenyan stray, Prema, in his bachelor pad as a ready reward for his being such a good man. (She will fall pregnant without the leads sharing so much as a kiss; it's a pretty thankless role for Gugu Mbatha-Raw after the starmaking moments of Belle and Beyond the Lights)

The scene in which Prema pulls her upright host onto a nightclub floor to get jiggy with it is the stuff of test screening interference, and the point at which Concussion abandons all claims to dramatic seriousness. It is, however, entirely consistent with the way Landesman appears to back away from overt criticism of an American sporting tradition in favour of celebrating America's ability to absorb different creeds, colours and medical points of view. Leaving aside the journalistic cowardice involved in that reframing, this Benetton-ad worldview appears borderline fantastical at this Trumpish moment; within the film, it gives rise to boggy-soggy encounters in drab-looking conference rooms, where the useful anger that gave Spotlight its charge gives way to damp-eyed piety. "I think you're going to be an American hero," Wecht tells Omalu around the halfway mark. "I'm not even American," Omalu insists. "That's so fucking American," comes the response. As we head towards the inevitable final-reel image of the Stars and Stripes, Landesman keenly retrieving the notes scattered at his feet by producers and early viewers alike, Concussion starts to feel less hard-hitting than soft-headed, victim of lawyer-assisted compromise - but then Sony needs to promote its product at half-time in the Super Bowl as much as any other studio.

Concussion opens in cinemas nationwide tomorrow.

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