First there was Monday’s release of the first trailer for Concussion, the forthcoming Will Smith vehicle depicting the early days of the NFL’s ongoing defense of its game from the reality that it is very bad for the brains of the men who play it. Then there was an interview between writer/director Peter Landesman and the NFL’s favorite transcription service. The two have given rise to the notion, among the gullible at least, that Concussion will be an excellent, true-to-life film that puts the NFL in its place at the bottom of a leaky dumpster out behind the Skyline Chili. Concussion might end up being a good, entertaining movie—it is, after all, based on a good, entertaining article—but it won’t be anyone’s protest movie, because, as documents that came out of the Sony email hack from earlier this year show, no one is trying to make that movie.
This post will contain spoilers for Concussion, which is based on very recent history.
Okay, so we haven’t actually seen Concussion yet. But since the Sony hack, we’ve read a few versions of the script, since both the production draft—that is, the version that the movie began shooting with, which isn’t the same as the version you’ll see in theaters, since on-set re-writes are a routine part of the filmmaking process—and a more recent version are up on WikiLeaks. We also went through studio notes from former Sony boss Amy Pascal sent at the end of September, and legal fact-checking notes sent in late October, mid-shoot. (Favorite Pascal note, for an early scene establishing neuroscientist Bennet Omalu’s attentiveness during an autopsy: “LOVINGLY WASHES THE DEAD BODIES OR RESPECTFULLY THERE IS A BIG DIFFERENCE”.) Elsewhere, Reddit user dynamicsearchguy dumped a series of Sony emails from earlier in the drafting process, as the script groaned under the simultaneous weight of its responsibility to inform, dramatic necessity, marketing interests, basic legal thresholds of accuracy.
Already, nuggets about Sony’s capitulation to the NFL’s point of view are getting around. The New York Times, for instance, citing many of the emails linked above, all but accuses Sony of straight-out ethical malfeasance. Maybe that’s true, but editing out clips of Roger Goodell laughing to himself as he looks at brain scans or whatever isn’t the only way a project like Concussion lets its mark off the hook. It probably isn’t even the main one, and focusing on it is probably a mistake. While the New York Times accused the movie of caving to the NFL’s demands, the narrative demands of Hollywood film-making let the NFL off the hook before Goodell even fired up his legal team.
To understand that, you have to start with those emails from Reddit. Check out this scorcher from Dwight Caines, president of Sony Pictures marketing, setting the movie’s agenda (emphasis added):
NFL – We’ll develop messaging with the help of NFL consultant to ensure that we are telling a dramatic story and not kicking the hornet’s nest. We will always be careful of how we represent that NFL itself in key art and images (we need to comply with fair use) and we’ll walk a fine line as it relates to the “David and Goliath” nature of this story. We expect a healthy amount of NFL in our media flight and we’ll seek to have sportscasters equipped to talk about this movie as an important development in the history of the game without casting blame or judgement., ...
Managing Controversy — we should give consideration to allowing voices on both sides of the issue to sound off as part of our campaign. We used this tactic on The Social Network when the privacy questions about Facebook were at their height — we highlighted both sides of the debate on a Tumblr blog. On The Da Vinci Code, we hired a faith based consultant to launch a site that allowed clergy to weigh in on the claims made by the book.
Bennet — In the same way that we managed to get Chris Gardner’s “stamp of approval” on The Pursuit of Happyness we’ll consider how we’ll use Bennet in the campaign ensuring that we keep him on message. His mission is about safety and saving lives but the MOVIE is about the American Dream on some level and how this outsider in seeking his own place seemingly threatened the American Dream of others. It’s also a story about overcoming the odds.
Now, that’s a marketing schlub performing his marketing juju, hardly evidence that the filmmakers are anywhere near so malleable. But having read a few versions of the script, it’s hard to shake the notion that the marketing prick is right: they’ve co-opted the standing mission to fundamentally change the fabric of competitive football and made it into a fun little romp about a quirky scientist getting senpai to notice him.
The script is by Landesman, a serious writer and former investigative reporter who writes serious movies, like Trade, about human trafficking, or Kill the Messenger, about the CIA in Nicaragua (which sort of explains the trailer depicting a neuropathologist interrogating a fellow scientist like Jack Bauer and his favorite pair of pliers, but whatever). He talks, in an MMQB post, about the primal draw of a David vs. Goliath story, and you can see how the right set of bankshots might draw the macro story out of the micro—the immigrant scholar finding the NFL to be just as immovable as the scientific establishment and, like, America or some shit. But two things are kneecapping him here, both of which are evident in the script he produced, even outside of whatever interference the NFL ran, which was considerable.
The NFL’s story is still incomplete
First of all, Landesman has to make a fucking movie. A documentary is comparatively easy. A feature-length film, though, means you’re on the hook for things like dramatic arc, characters who exist outside of football, interior motivation, and resolution. On one end, the notion is to work mainly from Omalu’s point of view. He meets his wife and worries over his young cousin, Amobi Okoye, who was about to begin playing college football at the time the film is set and eventually became the youngest player ever drafted into the NFL, going 10th overall to the Texans in 2007. What went on behind closed doors for the other half of the story, though—the half involving pushback against Omalu and his science—is completely unknown. To supplement this, some fictional characters were invented to serve as vessels for the plot, and some actual events were rearranged to make them more dramatically convenient. (One fictional character on Team NFL is named Maurice Jones; the lawyers tried to get the staff to change his name so he wouldn’t be confused with Maurice Jones-Drew, but seems to have been waved off in the October script.) The trouble was that as it was laid out in the original draft, not all of this was legal.
Notes that contain lines like, “And is the depiction of the NFL/opposition as smart/strong/credible as it could be…” or “butof course the problem there is that the footage can only be obtained through the nfl So before we go off to the races we need to know exactly what we can and can’t do and if this is a ‘true story or not” are telling just for the insight they give into the mindset of a studio boss. Remember, though, that these notes are given in the context of the story having to be true-to-facts enough to be legally defensible and dramatically compelling.
Here’s what some of the “watering down” of the script at the insistence of the NFL actually looks like, from an internal memo dated November 6, 2014:
Scene 129 — Tagliabue reads the NY Times just before leaving the NFL(p.90)
In reality, Tagliabue announced his retirement in March 2006 — ten months before the January 2007 NY Times article. Seeing Tagliabue read the article immediately before his resignation creates too much of a false cause-and-effect between the events. Other characters in the script can speculate that Bennet’s work may have contributed to Tagliabue leaving, but the movie can’t declare this as what actually happened.
This scene was shot last week. If we want to keep the NY Times article in the movie, we suggest reshooting the scene with Bennet reaing it and moving it to a later point in the story that has no impact on Tagliabue’s retirement.
By this time, the film was already in production; this is mostly housekeeping on the back end. It’s the catch that hangs up the whole notion of making this story into a movie now, though, without any actual answers about who knew what and when they knew it, and it turns up over and over in the legal notes. One fictional NFL lackey carries the load of the league office’s collective discovery of Bennet’s work; Bennet Omalu is teleported to Chicago to be snubbed by an NFL doctor, even though he was in another state; a threatening, late-night phone call to Omalu is invented, and implied to be engineered by the NFL. (Pascal: “CAN WE MAKE THE ANONYMOUS CALL REALLY SEEM REALLY SCAREY [sic]”) These are listed in the legal memo under “Areas that are problematic and need to be cut or addressed,” and the reasons why are obvious enough.
The template here—industry giant vs. everyman, whistleblower vs. kneebreakers—just doesn’t work when we’re still guessing about what actually happened. The NFL has been smart enough to shut the fuck up about its (probably) Big Tobacco-like attempts to dissemble and intimidate and lie its way out of liability for being a brain trauma factory, so any attempt at pinning specific blame on them necessarily runs the risk of being libelous, since who the fuck really knows. A screenwriter is therefore left to either wrangle the overwhelming complexities of a massive conglomerate with few to no hard facts to weaponize into an indictment, or drum up a few patsies.
That’s why a note like “The NFL: - Rather than portray the NFL as one corrupt organization can we identify the individuals within the NFL who were guilty of denying/covering up the truth” misses the point so badly. The script does eventually settle on specific villains like Elliot Pellman, the rheumatologist who led the league’s initial push against Omalu, but by separating them from the generic, unknowable “NFL” it abets the illusion of making concerted institutional non-action appear to be personal failings of a few individuals. It indicts the patsy, instead of drawing a line from his actions or inactions to those of the interests he represents. Just look at how they roll out Pellman, who may as well be Nazi Magneto here:
We haven’t read earlier versions of the script to see precisely what was taken out—maybe it had Goodell nuking China?—but stopping the buck at the NFL’s doctors, for legal or dramatic purposes, seems at least as damaging as any specific omissions of the NFL’s guilt.
The science is complicated
The script’s opening montage introduces us to Mike Webster, the former Pittsburgh Steelers player at the center of the discovery of CTE, and in early scenes we see him as his doctors found him—broken-down, delusional, unwashed, scared. On the page, these are the most compelling moments, that most clearly lay out the nature of the disease and the stakes of the science and the NFL’s image-management efforts, but the character arc is brief. Mike has to die. This is obvious, since it was Webster’s brain that began the entire chain of events, but also because of the nature of the disease: CTE is only diagnosable at autopsy.
It’s a longer arc to essentially the same effect for Dave Duerson, a former NFL player who died by suicide in 2011, shooting himself in the chest so that his brain would remain intact for researchers. Near the end of Concussion, we see Duerson kill himself. The message isn’t subtle. This is what his earlier scene with Bennet looks like:
The second, more fraught thing in the movie’s way is that it’s based on a still-emerging field of science. Yes, there’s overwhelming circumstantial evidence that football causes lasting cognitive damage, and Omalu’s discovery of tau protein buildup is the foundational document for CTE research, but what “CTE” means as a pathology is still in flux. You can depict Bennet Omalu as Bad Brains Prometheus, sure, but any accurate interpretation of the science will acknowledge that CTE is the supercharging of a variety of risk factors, not some encompassing, deterministic disease. In Concussion, though, that’s precisely what it is.
The actual, spoken-out-loud science in Concussion is pretty much fine, mostly because there isn’t much of it. The movie is notably based on the 2009 GQ article,“Game Brain,” and takes its cues from that. Tau protein cruds up important parts of your brain—got it. But the symbolism the movie uses to make its points is abundantly clear, and the symbol is death. Specifically, it’s inescapable death. Here’s how footage of Goodell’s congressional hearing is played:
That last burst is just subtext said out loud. The thing is, though, that smoking causes lung cancer and other maladies by shifting the probabilities, depending on individual genetics and other risk factors, toward a biological outcome. It’s as direct a cause-and-effect relationship as there is. But CTE isn’t that type of disease, presenting itself in a set of known, tangible ways; it’s a gradient of cognitive degeneration that presents itself gradually, without any (pre-mortem) test allowing for a clean binary like cancerous/cancer-free. This makes it hard to make a movie about its victims that isn’t only about its victims; early onset dementia has its own aisle at the Oscar-bait depot, but it needs space to settle in and make you consider what it means for a 40-year-old’s brain to come undone and lose its hold on whatever made its owner a human. You could do Still Alice in cleats, I guess, but watching it about the one lady was awful enough without blowing the scope out to thousands of former players, and anyway that’s an entirely different movie, with less room for Will Smith’s deepthroaty derring-do. It’s a tricky thing for a filmmaker, and Landesman approached it by using a proxy: suicide.
Just as the filmmaking process let the NFL off the hook as an organization, essentially playing into its hands by pointing at its sinister patsies, eliding the science lets the NFL (and the NCAA, and ... ) slide on the broader and more widespread effects of the game. Narrative demands a cavalcade of brains arriving to Omalu’s lab, and for his particular affinity for relating to the dead take up a part, but also demands a fundamental misrepresentation of the disease. The tragedy of Mike Webster wasn’t his death; it was what his cognitive condition did to him in life. Suicide isn’t the inevitable end of playing football any more than a tracheostomy is the inevitable outcome of smoking, and the implication that it is allows deniers to look around, point to things like the study saying NFL players’ life expectancy is actually longer than the average person’s, and waggle their fingers right back at science.
It’s fair to look at the internal emails and wonder what else was left out. But if you take the totality of the notes in the context of making a compelling movie, you’ll find see dramatic motivation moving the film’s aim back the other direction as well.
From Pascal’s September 29 notes (transcribed from her all-caps, with emphasis added):
When Bennet goes to Waters funeral and gets permission to do the autopsy is that to get Bailes to believe in him and win him over ….and then Bailes says I need one moe [sic] piece of proof ….Stezelczyk...should it be this easy for them to get it????So no one wants to be on Bennets side so he gets Waters brain and Stezel brain to prove it is about football and in the mean time his cousin makes the opposing break your heart argument....is this clear enough?
At this point this scene should play with some irony….We are being sold that Roger Goodell is coming in to solve all the problems ...We should really lay it on thisck [sic] here….
The thing that comes across reading these—and, really, all of the leaked Pascal emails that have come out of the hack—is that Pascal enjoys doing this, even if she has to give notes like “TOTALLLY WEIRD THAT HE GOES TO A CLUB RIGHT AFTER HGOSPITAL SCENE WHEERE SHE LOSES THE BABY,” or, “AND EQUALLY IMPORTANT WHAT IS THE STORY TELLING TECHNIQUE WE ARE USING TO GO BACK AND FORTH BETWEEN POINTS OF VIEW IN THIS MOVIE>>>. DOES PETER KNOW?” (“Does Peter know?” Damn.) It also comes across that she’s pretty good at it, whereas not everyone else in the process will be. Take this note from then-co-president of Columbia Pictures, Hanna Minghella, from an email in which she misspells Omalu’s first name 48 times:
33 - like the juxtaposition of Prema enjoying the game while Bennett imagines what’s happening inside the brain... This is how his theory should begin... if we like the earlier idea of creating “Bennett vision” when he’s performing the autopsies we could do something similar here when we see how Bennett views the game as compared to the average fan/viewer.
“Bennett vision.” Jesus Christ. This is the iterative Hollywood process in motion. Combine that with the massive complexity of the situation, the lack of any real resolution in real life events, and the basic un-theatricality of actual science, and the ending writes itself: The NFL didn’t have to kill the concussion movie. Hollywood did it all on its own.