Peter Landesman knows what it's like to get knocked in the head so hard you see stars. Before he was an investigative journalist and a filmmaker, Landesman played high school and college football as a center and a linebacker. Play after play, he found himself on the front line of the game's most violent moments. And he loved it.
"How many times did I get my bell rung?" Landesman said on a recent afternoon in Los Angeles. "All the time, every day. It was almost a badge of honor to get your bell rung and get back in the game and tough it out."
As the writer and director of "Concussion," Landesman — who at 50 still has the broad-shouldered build of a man who could plow through a blocking dummy — is girding himself for some hits of a different kind. The film takes on the hot-button issue of brain injuries in the NFL, an issue many see as posing an existential threat to one of America's most beloved pastimes and one of the most powerful institutions in the sports world.
Opening Dec. 25 during the heart of both awards season and football season, "Concussion" stars Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu, the forensic pathologist who identified and reported the first case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in a pro football player in 2005. Linked to repetitive blows to the head, the disease can lead to dementia, aggression and depression and has been diagnosed postmortem in dozens of former NFL players, including Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau, who committed suicide in 2012. In April, a federal judge approved a potential $1-billion settlement in a class-action lawsuit brought against the NFL by thousands of former players who accused the league of hiding what it knew about the dangers of concussions; under the terms of the settlement, the NFL made no admission of guilt.
Part medical-mystery thriller, part whistleblower drama and part inspirational immigrant's story, "Concussion" chronicles the Nigerian-born Omalu's discovery of CTE during an autopsy of Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster (David Morse) and his subsequent efforts to spread the word of football's dangers in the face of strong pushback from the NFL, which attempts to discredit him and suppress his findings. In the vein of films like "The Insider" and "Erin Brockovich," "Concussion" portrays Omalu as the crusading David to the NFL's Goliath, depicting the league as a shadowy multibillion-dollar enterprise that puts its own financial interests above the welfare of its players.
"This movie really throws the gauntlet down," Landesman said. "There are a lot of people on the wrong side of history on this issue. The equivalent would be like it's 1491 and the world is still flat to a lot of people, including the NFL — and Will as Bennet is Christopher Columbus."
Early reviews have been somewhat divided, but with the combined drawing power of one of the world's biggest box office stars and an important, ripped-from-the-headlines story, the film, which cost $35 million to produce, is expected to have wide commercial appeal. "The few cynical, snarky reviewers who don't like earnest movies anyway aside, I think people are moved by it," Landesman said. "This is a movie for a very broad audience. It's a populist movie in the best sense."
However critics and moviegoers respond to the film, it's safe to say that it is unlikely to be warmly received in the NFL's corporate offices. "God did not intend for us to play football," Smith, as the religiously devout Omalu, says flatly at one point.
"We're intersecting with this issue at exactly the right time where this movie can really have an impact," Landesman said. "Football is a juggernaut that is only getting bigger, and there's a silver bullet that's traveling on an intersecting tangent. It's going to be really interesting to watch."
'Servant of the truth'
Considering the NFL's deep ties to the entertainment industry, the mere fact that "Concussion" exists at all — let alone with a major studio, Sony Pictures, behind it — is something of a surprise. Though the less savory aspects of life on the gridiron have occasionally been explored in movies such as "North Dallas Forty" and "Any Given Sunday," the sport for the most part has been portrayed on-screen with glowing reverence.
"Everyone we talked to at the beginning was like, 'You guys are crazy — nobody is going to want to touch this,'" said producer Giannina Scott, who helped get the project off the ground with husband and co-producer Ridley Scott. "Ridley and I were like, 'This needs to get out there, and we're going to do everything to make it happen.'"
It was actually Omalu himself who first approached the film industry with his story, using a 2009 story in GQ magazine by writer Jeanne Marie Laskas, on which "Concussion" is based, as a platform. Having grown up in a village in Nigeria, the sixth of seven children, he became enamored with America thanks in part to its movies and knew well the kind of effect they could have.
"I realized that this subject had not permeated the fabric of American society, and it crossed my mind that Hollywood was a very powerful agent of change," Omalu said. "Americans trust and admire Hollywood, so I thought Hollywood would be a better servant of the truth. I took my story to Hollywood and signed over my life rights without a penny. I'm not doing this to enhance my career or make money. This is bigger than me."
Landesman, who made his directorial debut with the 2013 historical drama "Parkland," was brought on to write and direct, but multiple studios passed on the project before then-Sony co-chair Amy Pascal agreed to make the film. "Ridley's deal is at Fox, but Fox is football, and every other studio has football broadcast relationships," Landesman said. "Sony was the only place to do it. 'Moneyball,' 'Foxcatcher,' 'Zero Dark Thirty' — they have a history of making smart, adult, concrete films and ferociously backing filmmakers who want to make brave movies."
From early on, Smith was seen as the ideal actor to play Omalu, but getting him on board proved its own challenge. Smith initially felt torn about taking on a project that would shed a disturbing light on a sport he loved.
"Ridley called me one Friday afternoon and said, 'I have a gift for you,'" Smith recalled. "I read the screenplay and I thought it was beautifully written. It was the artist thing where you're like, 'Man, I would love to do this.' But I just didn't want to be that guy. I've been a football fan all my life. My son [Trey] played football." (Smith himself had played two years of football in high school, though in his case, he joked, "Splinters in the backs of my thighs were more of an issue for me than a concussion.")
However, after meeting Omalu and hearing his life story, Smith was ultimately persuaded to take the role. "I think the thing that really took it over the edge for me is when he explained the science and I realized that, as a parent, I wasn't aware — like, I had no idea," said Smith. "While my son was playing football, there was never a conversation about the concussion issue. It never came up for four years — and this was at Oaks Christian [in Westlake Village], which is a football powerhouse. If I didn't know, I knew other parents didn't know."
On the defensive
In early September, Landesman and Sony suddenly found themselves on the defensive when an article in the New York Times, citing emails leaked in last year's cyber attack on Sony, alleged that alterations had been made to "Concussion" to avoid antagonizing the NFL. Internal studio emails were quoted suggesting that "unflattering moments for the N.F.L." had been cut or changed and that Sony's lawyers had taken "most of the bite" out of the film. "We'll develop messaging with the help of NFL consultant to ensure that we are telling a dramatic story and not kicking the hornet's nest," Dwight Caines, Sony's president of domestic marketing, wrote in an email to three fellow executives in August 2014.
Landesman and the studio immediately pushed back against the allegations, and the flap has largely died down since the movie's premiere this month at the AFI Fest. Landesman remains adamant that the film was not watered down in any way, saying that though he initially considered meeting with NFL representatives, he ultimately decided against it and made the picture entirely without the league's involvement. (What NFL game footage is used in the film was included under fair use.)
"Look, because of my background, my instinct is to be fair and balanced and that means going to everybody — that's what we do if you're a good journalist," he said. "In my own brain, I was like, 'I'm going to sit down with [NFL Commissioner] Roger Goodell and all those guys and get those stories.' Then I was like, 'But what story am I telling?' Why do that when the better story, the more truthful and more revelatory story, is the story of Bennet Omalu?"
"Concussion" producer and former Sony production executive Elizabeth Cantillon says the movie was subjected to the same kind of careful examination that any fact-based film would be. "Most narrative nonfiction movies on current events are under a microscope," Cantillon said. "I worked on 'The Social Network.' I worked on 'Captain Phillips.' These stories always draw a certain amount of scrutiny. You have to be attentive to the details."
For his part, Ridley Scott says that whatever internal discussions may have taken place, the finished product pulls no punches. "I don't know how much harder you can hit it than what Peter did," he said.
It remains to be seen how the NFL will respond to the film. When asked in September to comment on "Concussion," the league told the New York Times in a statement, in part, "We are encouraged by the ongoing focus on the critical issue of player health and safety. We have no higher priority." In recent years, the NFL has introduced rules and procedures aimed at protecting players from concussions. Still, serious questions remain about the league's handling of the issue, as highlighted in a recent game in which St. Louis Rams quarterback Case Keenum was kept on the field after sustaining what was later determined to be a concussion. And evidence of the link between football and traumatic brain injury continues to pile up; this week, the family of late Hall of Famer and sportscaster Frank Gifford, who died in August, disclosed that he had been diagnosed with CTE.
The reality is, no matter how much negative attention the NFL receives — whether from the concussion issue, domestic violence arrests or the Deflategate scandal — ratings for football only seem to grow. This year's Super Bowl drew a record-setting 114.4 million viewers.
The team behind "Concussion" says the film isn't aimed at taking down football — even Omalu says he's "not anti-football" — but simply at heightening awareness of the sport's dangers for the sake of players, fans and parents.
Asked whether his own awareness has changed the way he watches the game, Smith paused before answering.
"I haven't watched a game this season yet," he said. "I'm not avoiding it — I've just been working. I don't think I'll ever be able to un-see the beauty. A 45-yard touchdown pass with one hand — that's never going to be distasteful. But it's a conflict, and I think it's going to be a conflict for everyone."