At AFI Fest, ‘Concussion’ throws down a gauntlet to the NFL

Will Smith in a scene from the film "Concussion."

Will Smith in a scene from the film “Concussion.”

(Melinda Sue Gordon / AP)

Long before its Christmas Day release, the fact-based film “Concussion” was generating speculation and even potential controversy. Would the movie—about the NFL’s handling of football’s head-injury crisis--pull punches in how it addressed the topic? And if it didn’t, could it alter perceptions of the country’s dominant sports pastime?

On Tuesday at AFI Fest, “Concussion” made an early statement on those questions when it screened for the public for the first time. And while the jury is out on how the film, which stars Will Smith and is backed by Sony Pictures, will echo in a nation obsessed with all things pigskin, the answer to the first question was resolute: it does not hold back.

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That position was encapsulated by its director, the journalist-turned-filmmaker Peter Landesman, who in an interview with The Times after the screening said of the NFL, “Not to sound dramatic, but they have death on their hands.”

“Concussion” explores the 21st-century discovery of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a disease now believed to afflict scores of former NFL players, including the late San Diego Charger star Junior Seau. The condition results from repeated blows to the head and can include a range of debilitating cognitive and emotional symptoms. One of its most insidious features is that it cannot be detected by traditional scans and in fact is only fully diagnosed after death.

Shedding a light on all this is Bennet Omalu (Smith), a Nigerian-born forensic pathologist in Pittsburgh who, in 2002, notices a strange set of medical circumstances while performing an autopsy on former Steelers offensive lineman Mike Webster, who had committed suicide. That soon sets Omalu off on a research path that unearths more of such cases, discovered after their sufferer also takes his own life.

Needless to say, the doctor quickly runs afoul of the NFL, which seeks, as Omalu’s boss and research partner Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks) says, to “bury us.” Discrediting Omalu’s research is the least of the league’s measures, according to the movie, which implies that the league played a role in the FBI investigating Wecht and even tormented Omalu’s family.

As a viewer, you may find yourself waiting for the film to give the NFL a pass or a small moment of redemption. It never comes. Instead, NFL executives are shown as shadowy figures who stop at nothing to protect their interests. There are repeated comparisons between the league and Big Tobacco, the film equating the industries in how they allegedly knowingly suppressed evidence about the deadliness of their product.

The NFL has thus far made no comment on the movie. But its position has long been that it has taken the necessary steps to address these health concerns via such action as a so-called concussion protocol that requires players to pass a long series of tests before retaking the field after a sharp blow to the head.

The issue of the NFL’s relationship to “Concussion” came to the fore several months ago with reports that the movie had been changed to placate the league. If such changes were considered, they did not appear to make their way into the finished film. “I’m thinking if this is ‘caved,’ jeez, I’d like to think of what the other film” would be, Brooks said at the screening.

Landesman said he did not meet with the NFL -- he canceled a scheduled sit-down with a top executive at the last moment because he felt it would help the NFL more than it would him -- and Sony has maintained that it has been unbowed by the possibility of any league reprisal. The studio, which greenlit the movie after many of its competitors passed, is one of the few corporate-owned Hollywood entities not to have a business relationship with the NFL.

The CTE publicity is just one front on which the league has fought. The NFL has endured a series of p.r. nightmares, the latest of which are revelations of photos of graphic bruises on Nicole Holder, allegedly caused by her ex-boyfriend, Dallas Cowboys star Greg Hardy.

But the bad press does not seem to be dissuading fans. NFL ratings continue their robust performance; “Sunday Night Football,” the game’s crown-jewel telecast, is averaging a whopping 23.6 million viewers halfway through the season, a 10% jump over last year. The sport’s popularity reamins high even in non-NFL markets; it was not lost on viewers that “Concussion” was debuting even as news broke of Robert Iger becoming involved in a bid to lure one or more NFL teams to the LA area.

Indeed, the game seems not only immune to off-field drama but may even be helped by it; ratings for Sunday’s matchup, which featured Hardy’s Cowboys, was up about 25% over last year’s game on the same weekend between the Ravens and Steelers despite those teams sporting a far better collective record at the time the contest took place.

How many of those fans (they of course also include the millions who play fantasy football) will see a movie or be amenable to its message of unethical complicity remains to be seen; among other factors, much of the information in it has been known for years.

Key to Sony’s marketing efforts is Smith, a star with the popularity to deliver its message in a wider way. The actor has been candid, if not quite as direct as Landesman, in expressing criticism of the NFL.

“For me it was really conflicting,” he told the audience after the AFI screening, noting his son’s status as a former high-school football player in Los Angeles. Smith said he thought about not getting involved due to his love of the game but ultimately felt compelled to make the movie as an educational tool of sorts.

“I watched my son play football for four years and I didn’t know. I didn’t know,” he repeated. “That became our quest: to deliver the truth. People have to know.”

Landesman said he’s not actively trying to change perceptions, and is skeptical he could anyway, at least in the immediate term.

“Most fans will see this movie and understand there’s a real problem, an insoluble problem, but also like the blood lust and will go back to watching.” He said he does believe that in the years to come the issue of head injuries will chip away at interest fans have in watching -- and parents have in children playing -- the game of football.

“Slowly and through generations, I think football will become like the military--it will become a different demographic playing it,” he said.

The director waved aside the concern that the NFL has, or even could, do anything to address the issues. “If you’re playing at a certain level,” he said, “the violence is baked into the sport.”

Asked what the NFL might have addressed the issue short of radically revamping the sport, Landesman said, “I don’t know what they could have done. But they could have at least told the truth.”

Omalu, meanwhile, also remains steadfast that the sport has not changed, and in many ways can’t be fundamentally changed to protect against head injuries. “Concussions do not cause brain damage. They’re an outcome,” he said in an interview. “The initiating factor is the blow,” he added, which is inherent to the sport.

As he walked around a premiere afterparty lauded by well-wishers, Omalu did say he believe a studio film could carry the message in a way his research and raw numbers couldn’t.

“I don’t think people are going to watch football differently,” he said. “But the movie is a reawakening. It’s a way to stimulate what they already know.”



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