Will Smith and Sony came out hard against the National Football League at the world premiere of Concussion, painting a damning picture of a sport too big to admit it’s been killing its own players.
“My son played football for four years, so for me it was really conflicting,” star Will Smith told a sold-out audience after Concussion’s AFI Fest debut, where real-life subject Dr. Bennet Omalu received a standing ovation.
“The fact that I watched my son play football for four years and I didn’t know… just as a parent, I felt like I had to be a part of this, of Bennet’s quest for the truth,” said Smith. “That also became our quest to deliver the truth. Because people have to know.”
While Smith, writer-director Peter Landesman, and Dr. Omalu remained diplomatic during their AFI Fest Q&A, the film speaks for itself: Organized football is akin to organized religion in America, it argues, and the NFL is a deeply and dangerously entrenched cultural institution more concerned with protecting itself than protecting its athletes. After years of denying and trying to discredit Omalu, the NFL has come around to acknowledging the disease he dubbed Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE—even if the period of pigskin history documented in Concussion depicts a shameful campaign of denial by the NFL.
The premiere of Concussion quiets speculation stemming from a September 1st New York Times piece that accused Sony and the filmmakers of neutering the film to appease the NFL, based on stolen emails leaked by the Sony hackers. “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 explained at the time, defending the script changes.
One scene that didn’t make it into the film reportedly captured a conversation between NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell (Luke Wilson) and NFL doctor Elliot Pellman discussing the gunshot suicide of high profile NFLer Dave Duerson. In the film, Duerson (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) is an aggressively loyal company man until the effects of CTE begin to take hold and he leaves his brain to science to be studied for concussion-related damage. Instead, Goodell only appears in reenacted scenes of publicly documented appearances and speeches—including his 2009 testimony before Congress in which he defended the NFL’s policies.
Not that Concussion needs a Goodell gotcha moment to mount an incriminating indictment of the NFL’s failure to address an increasingly unavoidable spate of mental health issues among its players. As the devout and saintly Omalu declares to colleagues after discovering the correlation between football and brain damage: “God did not intend for us to play football.”
He makes the landmark discovery while performing a routine autopsy on Pittsburgh Steelers star Mike Webster (David Morse, in a devastating turn), a once-great center found dead after being reduced to a shell of his former self, living out of his pick-up truck. “Why does an apparently healthy favorite son of this city become self-mutilating and homeless at 50?” Omalu wonders.
The answer plays out like an episode of CSI: Pittsburgh as the Nigerian-born pathologist spends his own savings to run tests on the late Webster’s brain, the only organ that offers any clue to why the celebrated athlete seemingly went crazy. He’s horrified by the results. As more football players die from mental illness or suicide that goes unaddressed by the NFL, Omalu connects the dots and names the deadly affliction.
“I am certain that playing football killed Mike Webster,” he declares, deducing that over his career Webster suffered at least 70,000 damaging blows to the head. Archival NFL footage of brutal tackles sprinkled throughout Concussion hammers home the point; scenes of young children smashing helmets in pee-wee football gives that intention a wider and more alarming scope.
The league knew about the dangers of on-field concussions, it argues, but ignored and suppressed the warnings even as an epidemic of mental illness and suicide shocked the sport with increasingly alarming regularity. As Omalu tries in vain to get the NFL to work toward fixing the deadly epidemic, the NFL keeps pretending he and the problem don’t exist.
And yet the deaths pile up—like those of Steelers lineman Justin Strzelcyzk, who died in a head-on collision after leading the police on a high speed car chase, and fellow Steelers alum Terry Long, who doctors discovered was suffering from brain damage when he committed suicide by drinking antifreeze.
According to Landesman, Omalu’s work made him “a mortal threat, public enemy No. 1, to one of the most lucrative industrial spectacles on the planet.” In the film it also brings death threats and FBI intimidators to his door—and, in one ambiguously suggestive scene, indirectly contributes to the miscarriage of his first child.
Concussion likens Big Football to Big Tobacco and suggests an insidious reach into science, government, and the hearts of Americans everywhere. “The National Football League owns neuroscience,” laments Albert Brooks’ Dr. Cyril Wecht, the senior pathologist who helped Omalu first publish his findings.
Brooks gets most of Concussion’s welcome moments of levity, riffing darkly and often about the David vs. Goliath nature of Omalu’s crusade. (Alec Baldwin is also excellent as former Steelers physician Dr. Julian Bailes, who’s driven to help Omalu by his deep regret over his own part in the NFL’s concussion epidemic.)
At AFI Fest, Brooks also got the biggest laughs. “Can you confirm Ben Carson is completely insane?” he asked Omalu.
“Did he play football?” the doctor answered.
Next to them, Smith chuckled: “I am so not touching that one.”
Brooks also made reference to the New York Times story about Concussion’s supposedly softened script. Now that he’d seen the film, “that wasn’t a cave in,” he exclaimed. “I think that was just a lot of malarkey.”
Concussion’s premiere was also attended by several ex-NFL players and, most movingly, the families and widows of players lost to CTE. Some pros had already seen the film. “A few have [seen Concussion],” Landesman reported. “They come out shaken.”