Sony released the first trailer for Concussion—their ripped-from-the-headlines dramatic account of how the effects of head trauma in football were met with immense resistance from the National Football League—yesterday. The film is based on the true story of Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith), the Nigerian-born forensic neuropathologist who discovered CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), a degenerative disease of the brain caused by repeated hits to the head. With the NFL being not just the most watched sport in the USA, but also the most watched primetime television event every week, Omalu’s reports of potential lifelong danger for the players was, of course, met with major opposition.
Whether or not the film will be met with opposition from football fans will likely determine the film’s financial success. Sony is releasing Concussion on Christmas Day, which is also during a week in which ESPN is airing college football bowl games every day, and when the NFL is in the final stretches of the regular season. Basically when football fandom is at a fever pitch—but also when it’s all over television on a constant daily basis. It will be interesting to see how marketing occurs on networks that air football games. Not that CTE is an unknown boogeyman—because it is now common knowledge and the league has taken extra safety measures in the designs of their helmets—but it will be very interesting to see if fans are open to watching a film that might make watching the playoffs a little more difficult. Particularly when the NFL is also trying to add more games (for even more revenue), despite player resistance for safety concerns.
As the NFL enters its last week of preseason action—which has already seen numerous injuries—the trailer was a huge topic on sports radio yesterday. We hopped on the phone and posed this question directly to the writer-director, Peter Landesman, a former journalist who’s also scripted the whistleblowing dramas Kill the Messenger and Parkland. And as a fan of the sport himself Landesman thinks that football fans will be aware that this isn’t a takedown of the sport, but is an attack on the corporation that makes billions of dollars off of it.
Check out the first Concussion trailer for yourself below before reading the interview that follows beneath. The drama also stars Alec Baldwin, Luke Wilson,Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Arliss Howard, Paul Reiser, David Morse and Albert Brooks.
Collider: Sony is releasing Concussion in the Christmas season, which is right when the college football bowl season starts kicking off, and the NFL playoffs start soon after. I’m curious, what would you like to say to fans—because there are so many people who love football that might be kind of worried if they would enjoy this, if it would attack their sport. How would you try to get them?
PETER LANDESMAN: Sure. I mean, I can tell you that I played college football, Will [Smith]’s son plays football, a lot of the people involved, a lot of us love football. I watch [football] with my children, I watch Super Bowl Sunday. This is not a movie that takes down the game, this is a very strong distinction this movie makes, and test audiences have told me successfully that it makes, between the game—which is beautiful and graceful and fascinating—and the NFL, which is an international corporation whose primary motivation is to make extraordinary amounts of money. So what I would say to you—or your readers…
You can say to me, I am a fan, but know there a certainly issues with fandom with these studies.
LANDESMAN: What I’d say to you is, this is a movie that’s a thriller. It’s fascinating, it’s actually compulsive to watch. You’re not just watching one of the great modern performances of our time— Will Smith gives an absolute out of body performance— but you’re watching a movie as if it’s fictional, as interesting and fascinating as a thriller and any entertainment. So, you’re not going for homework, you’re not going for medicine, you’re going to be entertained and you’re going to amazed at actually how powerful and cathartic this story is.
You mentioned corporation side of the NFL, you have the NFL logo and official team logos. How were you able to bring them aboard?
LANDESMAN: I didn’t have any dialogue with the NFL at all.
How did you get to circumvent that? Because I know Draft Day, last year, was touted for being one of the only times the NFL allowed all the team logos.
LANDESMAN: Well, what was important to me and the studio, and my producers was that we tell this story as truthfully as possible. So footage, logos, representation of the NFL, became part of the fabric of the storytelling that we weren’t gonna let that go. We fought diligently to do it, and our team came through. And I was spared going through it myself.
As someone who watches football and enjoys it yourself, do you feel like after researching so much and writing the script and directing Concussion that this is a game that can be safe and still be enjoyable? Or is it something that we need to start rethinking wholly?
LANDESMAN: You know, the movie makes the judgement about that, I have to say. The beauty of the game, the athleticism of the game I think will always be preserved, will always be part of the future of it. I think what’s gonna change is who plays it. This is not a movie that wags its fingers. I certainly don’t wag my fingers. It’s a movie about choices. Adult choices, and adults making decisions about what they’re children are gonna play and whether they’re gonna continue to play this and what they know. The fact is we now know that concussions can kill you, and playing football can give you concussions and some concussions can significantly damage your brain. So the complexion of the game will only change based on who plays it. I think that people, adults, parents, will now be making different decisions based on what they feel, and again, this isn’t a movie that extends its judgement, this is a movie about one man trying to discover the truth of it and the consequences of that are really up to the audiences themselves.
At the very beginning of the trailer, Will Smith says he thinks of heaven being at a certain level, and then just below is America. When you say it’s choices about not playing anymore, there is a decline in kids playing football now—since this study—but it’s very much along an upper and middle class line that’s tapping out—and I’m wondering if that’s something that you play with at all in this film?
LANDESMAN: No, I know what you’re getting at, which is not in the movie but I think that’s an inevitable sort of anthropological move based on what we learn throughout the movie. As a storyteller, my focus was really on character and how powerful and entertaining this film is.
We know that Concussion is based on a real doctor and an immigrant, Bennet Omalu. Could you tell me a little bit about him in the context of your film, where do we meet Will Smith’s character?
LANDESMAN: He’s really the most unlikely of heroes. He’s a Nigerian doctor who’s a pathologist, who is incredibly well educated, but who works as a low-level pathologist in —basically the morgue in Pittsburgh—he’s actually just in the middle of nowhere for that profession. He ends up with the body of a football player and he has no idea who he is. It’s—I mean, if I sat down and told you this story and told you it’s fictional and you’d believe me. It’s so unlikely, it’s such a coincidence that you would have said to me, “It’s not quite believable” But [Bennet]’s brilliant, he’s spiritual, he’s beautiful, and his relationship with the dead and the story they have to tell about how did they die and why is a big obsession in his life. So the setup is just kind of a compulsive desire to know more about his dead patients, in that sense.
Can confirm that Luke Wilson playing Roger Goodell [the much-maligned commissioner of the NFL] in Concussion?
LANDESMAN: Yeah, he’s playing Roger Goodell. He’s present in the trailer [laughs] for a second. He’s there in the credits now. He is Roger Goodell.
I saw that it was a rumor, it wasn’t confirmed through dialogue in the trailer…
LANDESMAN: Yeah. It used to be a secret deeper than Watergate. [laughs]
As a former journalist, can you talk about transitioning to film and how that is similar—in endgame—to the type of work you were doing as, say covering Rwanda previously?
LANDESMAN: Sure. I mean that’s a longer story than we have to tell at this moment, but I’m drawn to true stories because I find them more compulsively interesting, more relevant to my life and the life of the people around me and I love to tell stories about people who are alive or were recently alive so that I can meet them and develop these characters.
Concussion opens on December 25.