Concussion: NFL legal issues didn't 'compromise integrity' of biopic says director

Will Smith

The director of true life drama Concussion, starring Will Smith as a doctor who uncovered a dangerous brain condition which can affect American football players, has denied claims the film toned down its attacks on the US National Football League (NFL) for legal reasons.

Citing hacked emails, the New York Times reported on Tuesday that executives at studio Sony engaged in discussion with Smith’s representatives and director Peter Landesman with the aim of reducing direct attacks on the powerful sports conglomerate. But in a statement to the Associated Press, Landesman denied suggestions the film had been deliberately retooled as a “whistleblower” story rather than a “hard-hitting” assault on the NFL’s attitudes towards brain injury caused by repetitive head trauma.

“We always intended to make an entertaining, hard-hitting film about [this] David and Goliath story, which played out like a Hollywood thriller,” he said. “Anyone who sees the movie will know that it never once compromises the integrity and the power of the real story.”

Concussion, the first trailer for which hit the web on Monday, stars Smith as Dr Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian-born forensic pathologist and neuropathologist who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in American football players. Since his first successful diagnosis, which followed an examination on the former Pittsburgh Steelers centre Mike Webster, a number of other players with a history of head trauma have been found to suffer from the same progressive degenerative brain disease.

Citing emails, The Times reported a 6 August 2014 missive sent to executives by Dwight Caines, Sony’s president of domestic marketing at Sony Pictures, in which he promised the studio would “develop messaging with the help of NFL consultant to ensure that we are telling a dramatic story and not kicking the hornet’s nest”. The approach, Caines said, would be to make clear that Smith “is not anti football (nor is the movie) and isn’t planning to be a spokesman for what football should be or shouldn’t be but rather is an actor taking on an exciting challenge”. It is understood the consultant in questions was not an NFL employee, but rather a conduit hired to deal with the NFL.

In a separate email, dated 1 August, “unflattering moments for the NFL” were described as having been deleted or changed, according to the Times. And in a further missive dated 30 July, a top Sony lawyer was said to have excised “most of the bite” from the film “for legal reasons with the NFL”.

But film-makers argue their approach on the movie was in line with the care and attention taken by any large company when dealing with potential legal issues. “We don’t want to give the NFL. a toehold to say, ‘They are making it up,’ and damage the credibility of the movie,” Landesman told the Times. “There were things that might have been creatively fun to have actors say that might not have been accurate in the heads of the NFL or doctors. We might have gotten away with it legally, but it might have damaged our integrity as film-makers. We didn’t have a need to make up anything because it was powerful and revelatory on its own. There was never an instance where we compromised the storytelling to protect ourselves from the NFL.”

NFL senior vice president of health and safety policy, Jeff Miller, made a statement to The Hollywood Reporter following the release of Concussion’s debut trailer: “We are encouraged by the ongoing focus on the critical issue of player health and safety. We have no higher priority,” he said. “We all know more about this issue than we did 10 or 20 years ago. As we continue to learn more, we apply those learnings to make our game and players safer.”

A group calling itself the Guardians of Peace began publishing the hacked Sony emails on 24 November last year. Fallout from the cyber-attack eventually led to the resignation of Sony co-chairperson Amy Pascal in February.

Concussion opens in the US on Christmas Day, timing which suggests a tilt at the Oscars for the film and its star Smith, who is attempting a comeback following a miserable critical run in 2013 and 2014. Any suggestion that the movie’s rhetoric has been toned down would most likely impact negatively on its chances of awards season success.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Ben Child, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 2nd September 2015 10.46 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010