The day after the trailer for Will Smith’s NFL head-injury film Concussion made its way onto the web, news broke that seemed to undermine the seemingly searing polemic, and there is no doubt in my mind the NFL is thrilled about the convenient timing of this breaking story. The “Sony hackers” who went public with reams of private e-mails between Sony execs and artists unearthed a series of missives that seemed to compromise the entire reason for the film’s existence. The messages seem to state in blunt, careless language that the film was revised so as not to provoke any kind of NFL backlash, excising scenes that made the league look “unflattering.”
The e-mails, first published on Reddit, were taken mainstream yesterday by The New York Times’s Ken Belson, with the damning—and misleading—headline, Sony Altered ‘Concussion’ Film to Prevent N.F.L. Protests, Emails Show.
The immediate result was a social-media howl that the fix was in. The film would be a whitewash, about as legitimate as a Texas Public School US history textbook. Well-known NFL critics whom I deeply respect are now slashing at the film with the zeal of James Carville, while the NFL refrains from commentary. Matt Chaney, the terrific author of the book Spiral of Denial: Muscle Doping in American Football, e-mailed me,
Given the WikiLeaks cache of Sony emails, along with other available evidence, I anticipate a film that blames individuals, not the system, when it comes down to it. The film’s message will dilute, if not ignore, blatant culpability of the football institution for its 130 years of knowledge and denial regarding brain risk and casualty among combatant players of all ages.… Yet in 2015 we get a feature film touted to tell truth, to inspire wisdom, while we should only expect a watered-down narrative that avoids fingering the real villain, in this case the NFL.
In head-spinning time, Concussion traversed from a galvanizing call to arms against how the league treats players, to something divisive, discredited, and perhaps even dismissible, and still almost four months before the damn thing opens. It’s so ingeniously Machiavellian that if no one in the league is responsible for the timing of this story, someone should take credit just for the cigars, scotch, and backslaps.
But when you go beyond the headline, what you read in the e-mails amount to an understandably skittish back-and-forth between a Hollywood studio and the film’s director, Peter Landesman, as they prepare to take on perhaps the nation’s most culturally powerful corporate entity. The most damaging missive was on August 6, when Dwight Caines, the president of domestic marketing at Sony Pictures, wrote a very “president of domestic marketing” e-mail where he declared, “We’ll develop messaging with the help of N.F.L. consultant to ensure that we are telling a dramatic story and not kicking the hornet’s nest.”