By Dan Bernstein–
CBSChicago.com senior columnist
(CBS) There’s one word we know not to use when describing the upcoming movie “Concussion,” and it’s “fearless.”
That’s obvious and unfortunate, now, after a story in the New York Times on Tuesday detailed the extent to which the filmmakers sought to avoid upsetting the NFL in the portrayal of Dr. Bennet Omalu, who pioneered research into the connection between head trauma and degenerative brain disease, only to have his striking findings ignored and then attacked by an obstinate, amoral league.
Hackers uncovered dozens of internal emails from Sony Pictures Entertainment, posting some of them on Reddit and WikiLeaks – including conversations between top studio executives and movie’s director. There was concern that the NFL could possibly be seen as a “corrupt organization” and that the story would be somehow threatening to the league.
In one email, marketing chief Dwight Caines told his bosses, “We’ll develop messaging with the help of NFL consultant to ensure we are telling a dramatic story and not kicking the hornet’s nest.” Another noted that some parts that were less than favorable to the league were “deleted or changed,” and another said Sony lawyers took “most of the bite” out of the movie “for legal reasons with the NFL.”
Writer/director Peter Landesman tried to defend the indefensible by explaining to the Times that it was all in an effort to get the story right, to make sure it couldn’t be dismissed easily as having taken too much creative license. In acknowledging that lawyers made some deletions, he said it made the film “better and richer and fairer.”
Right. Because what work of art can’t be improved by lawyers?
Even the title of the movie helps the league, by continuing their preferred sleight-of-hand regarding the fundamental issue. As multiple studies have confirmed since Omalu’s findings were first described in 2009, the culprit in chronic traumatic encephalopathy is more the uninterrupted accumulation of sub-concussive hits to the head than it is the knockout shots. Not that concussions aren’t damaging in and of themselves, but the truth is more insidious and daunting to the NFL – it’s football that causes CTE, and concussions are just a part of it. This branding continues to hide that fact, even if it’s addressed in the movie.
It’s disappointing that punches got pulled, especially for those of us riveted by the initial story when it was published in GQ Magazine in 2009. Omalu’s attempts to sound the alarm regarding football and traumatic brain injury made for a read so compelling as to be itself Hollywood-cinematic, so the fact that the story was optioned quickly is no surprise.
The NFL did act evilly in this case and almost stereotypically so. Why those bringing this to the screen would want to self-censor is uncertain, seeing that Sony should be in a position to avoid the kind of corporate pressure from the league that caused ESPN to drop the show “Playmakers” or pull out of involvement with the PBS documentary “League of Denial.”
And this is before we even consider if the movie is any good, of course. The cast is promising, with Will Smith as Omalu, Luke Wilson as Roger Goodell, Albert Brooks and Alec Baldwin as other doctors and a perfectly chosen Paul Reiser as the NFL’s oily, venal Elliot Pellman, a role begging for a reprisal of his blithely sinister turn as Carter Burke in “Aliens.”
The two-minute trailer skirts with the appearance of parody in its melodrama, with one dimly lit scene after the next offering grim, turgid exposition over elegiac piano notes and portentous clock-ticks and heartbeats: “If you won’t speak for them … who will?” and “Tell the truth. Tell the truth!” and “Who ARE you?”
At one point, Smith as Omalu tells the room, “They have to listen to us. This is bigger than they are.”