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.”
(After the release of the hacked e-mails, a Sony representative told Belson that “the consultant cited in Mr. Caines’s e-mail was not an N.F.L. employee, but was hired to deal with the N.F.L.”)
But what people throwing up their hands at Sony and Landesman are missing is that their concerns are justified. The NFL is a hornet’s nest, and if you are going to take them on, you better make sure that your beekeeper mask is sealed tight, or they will sting you to semi-consciousness. This league, in the name of “protecting the shield” (shield being a synonym for public relations and/or profits) will make you spend the next decade of your life in court and not lose a night’s sleep. This is a league that is currently spending millions in legal fees to suspend the game’s glamor-boy quarterback because, at the end of the day, he would not give them his cellphone.
Knowing that, Landesman’s words to The New York Times in response to the hacked e-mails sound very credible. He said, “We don’t want to give the N.F.L. a toehold to say, ‘They are making it up,’ and damage the credibility of the movie…. There were things that might have been creatively fun to have actors say that might not have been accurate in the heads of the N.F.L. or doctors. We might have gotten away with it legally, but it might have damaged our integrity as filmmakers. 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 N.F.L.”
Landesman is right to want to figure out how to protect himself and his film from the NFL. That’s not about artistic or political compromise. That’s about how to most strategically wage a war against an opponent that’s in it for the kill.
I also have more faith in Landesman and Concussion than most who have read the damning e-mails—or headlines about the e-mails—because I know four people who have seen a final cut of the film. Two are former players who helped advise the film surreptitiously. They have friends and financial ties to the league and did not want to be named in this article, yet they are fiercely critical of how the league has treated their teammates. They both said that the film pulls no punches, that it honors their friends and puts the NFL “under the hot lights where they belong.”
I also communicated with Patrick Hruby, a contributing editor at VICE Sports who saw the film. If you are not familiar with Patrick’s NFL writings, think of him as someone who, to paraphrase Kareem Said, does not want to build a better NFL but wants to tear it down “brick by hypocritical brick.” In other words, he would have no patience for a film that tried to make the NFL look like an honest partner in the fight against brain injuries. Patrick e-mailed me,
I can confidently say it does not whitewash CTE, football-induced brain damage in general, or the NFL’s attempts to dismiss and deny the problem. More broadly, it doesn’t let football—or our collective cultural love of the sport—off the hook, either. When I read the Sony leaks earlier this year, my biggest takeaway was that studio executives were more concerned about overseas markets not buying tickets to a movie featuring an American sports no one else in the world cares about than any NFL pressure to soften the script. That said, I think the filmmakers were smart to have lawyers vet and fact-check the film to counter any NFL pushback—even though it’s a drama, it’s deeply rooted in a real story, and anytime you take a critical or unflattering look at a beloved cultural institution, you lose credibility if you get things blatantly wrong.
So color me optimistic about Concussion. I am bullish not only because I trust the people who have seen it, but for the same reason I appreciate all historically based films that take a stand against the powerful and corrupt, even when politically or artistically flawed. I appreciate them because they compel a minority of the audience to go out and seek the unvarnished truth, independent of the Hollywood sausage factory. There are political problems in such historically based sports sagas as 42, The Hurricane, Glory Road, and even the classic Eight Men Out. Yet each film started necessary discussions about what the histories left out. There is value in that. I do not know what broader impact Concussion will unleash, but I can just about guarantee that the terrific book on the NFL’s shameful history with head injuries, League of Denial, will be read by many more people. I can guarantee that the stories of Dave Duerson, Andre Waters, Mike Webster, and others who had their lives destroyed by the league’s negligence will be revived. I can guarantee that the NFL and its leader Roger “Luke Wilson” Goodell, are not happy that this film is being made. For now, that’s good enough for me.
I also wish I had proof beyond abject conjecture that the NFL had something to do with the timing of these leaks about the Concussion movie. It may not have been something that they executed, but it certainly seems like something they would do. That fact alone speaks volumes about how the league both handles critics and does its business.