Peter Landesman is used to tackling tough subjects. The former New York Times Magazine journalist has written about everything from Russian arms traffickers to genocide in Rwanda. So perhaps it’s not surprising that he sounds non-plussed when he talks about doling out some harsh blows to the NFL in his new film, Concussion. Based on a true story, the film stars Will Smith as Dr. Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist who first diagnoses C.T.E., a degenerative brain disease linked to repeated head blows, in 2005. Omalu discovered several cases of C.T.E.-amongst former NFL players whom he performed autopsies on, a number of whom had ended their lives in suicide. He, and the film, attack the NFL for initially denying any connection between C.T.E. and football players, and trying to discredit Omalu’s findings.
“[NFL commissioner] Roger Goodell doesn’t really worry me that much,” say Landesman, who wrote and directed the film. “He’s a guy who lives in Greenwich, Ct. and drives a really nice car. I’m not that concerned.”
In Concussion, Goodell (who’s played by a beefed-up Luke Wilson) comes across as almost comically out of touch; a relentless defender of the NFL who goes to baffoonish lengths to protect his multi-billion-dollar corporation. At one point he denies that former Pittsburgh Steelers lineman Justin Strzelczyk–who died in a seemingly suicidal car crash, and whose emotional and mental unravelling is depicted in the film–suffered from C.T.E., saying that he may have gotten a concussion while swimming in a pool.
“My portrayal of the NFL was accurate and real,” says Landesman. “I didn’t have NFL people say anything that they hadn’t actually said, because I didn’t need to get into a he-said, she-said with the NFL and distract people from the power of the movie. (Goodell did in fact make the swimming pool comment.) Large corporations have the ability to distract people with controversy that just distracts people from what’s great about the movie, or what works about the movie. And I didn’t want to leave myself exposed to that. So I made what Roger Goodell and Elliot Pellman (the NFL’s top medical advisor) say in the movie what they actually said.”
Indeed, Landesman says he went to great lengths to present his David and Goliath story with accuracy in order to fend off any counterattacks from the NFL, which did not participate in the film or speak to Landesman. “I wanted to make sure this film was factually air-tight,” he says. “We didn’t want to give them a toe-hold to criticize us or to discredit the movie by being sloppy or by it being inaccurate. So I actually set in motion a series of fact-checking portals that the script had to move through before we shot the movie. The studio (Sony) was behind it–don’t forget this is the studio that released Zero Dark Thirty. So they’ve been through this process before and the bruising aspect of it before.”
This desire to be assiduously fair is what led to some cuts in the film, but Landesman denies that they were made–as a New York Times story from September suggests–in order to concede any ground to the NFL. The Times story was written before the film had been screened and was based on emails leaked in the Sony hack in which a Sony lawyer writes that “most of the bite” had been taken out of Concussion “for legal reasons with the N.F.L. and that it was not a balance issue.”
Landesman calls the Times pieces “strange and odd and, retrospectively, kind of laughable. It was a very strange piece of, I don’t know if you call it journalism, it was written by a reporter who hadn’t seen the movie and yet passed judgment. Now people have seen the movie and realize that the accusation that the film is soft on the NFL–I mean, I don’t even know how to respond to that. I think it’s fairly clear that that’s not the case.”
But while the debate about how safe football is permeates the film, the movie itself is the story of a man who arrives in America (from Nigeria) full of optimism and hope and a desire to make something of himself, only to unwittingly find himself going to war with America’s most treasured pastime. Landesman said he knew as soon as he met Omalu that he was the heart of his movie, and he went to great lengths to capture all of his nuances, from the way he dances around the autopsy table, to his musical preferences (he puts on headphones and listens to soothing jazz while performing surgery).
“I always knew from the beginning” that Omalu was the story. “I mean, you can’t make a movie about something this important and make the issue a central character because, A, you’d just be doing a documentary; B, it’s a news piece; and C, it just comes off like a piece of self-righteous advocacy.
“I was making a feature film about a human being and his trials and travails and his incredible journey. The story of Bennet Omalu is a riveting story, it’s just a riveting tale. I knew from the beginning if I stayed close to that kind of storytelling and focussed on the character, then the other stuff comes along with it and the message becomes baked into the journey. I mean, people go to the movies to have an emotional experience, not to learn information they could look up on Wikipedia.”
In order to bring Omalu to life on the page–and ultimately the screen–Landesman studied him over the course of several months. “I always spend a good deal of time with the people I write about,” he says. “I try and smell the normalcy of their lives. I try to look at the normal rhythm of their life. Because what I try to do is approximate a normal life interrupted by something extraordinary. And so I can’t do the extraordinary thing until I understand what’s normal.
“I went to a number of his autopsies and watched the way his hands and feet moved, the way he physically moved around the table and how he engaged with the dead, because I think the dead is a big part of his spiritual journey. His wife, his kids, the car he drives. The kind of music he listens to. A lot of the things that an actor will hold to to play him, I do as well to try and write them and hear their voice. It’s a very similar process. You know, Will (Smith) kind of followed me in the sense that he then went on his own research mission looking at a lot of the same things.”
Landesman and Sony–which unlike most other major studios has no ties to the NFL–haven’t been shy about Concussion in the weeks leading to its Christmas Day release, a holiday that happens to fall squarely in the heart of football season. Trailers for the film are being shown on all of the major broadcast networks during football games, and several aired during the Thanksgiving Day game between the Dallas Cowboys and Carolina Panthers. “That got a tremendous response,” says Landesman. “People can’t believe we’re taking on the NFL, but the truth is, truth is the best defense. They can’t deny it, the whole thing is undeniable.”
Indeed, in the years since Omalu first published his findings on C.T.E., the NFL has acknowledged that C.T.E. is a problem for players and has paid hundreds of millions of dollars in settlement fees to about 5,000 retired players who accused the league of hiding the dangers of concussions. Still, as the film suggests, there is still work to be done when it comes to protecting players from the dangers of an incredibly violent game. Concussion ends with a scene (spoiler alert!) of two high-school football players’ racing towards each other, their helmets colliding together in a crushing crash.
But Landesman says he thinks the NFL is doing what they can to implement safety measures, even if those measures aren’t as dramatic as some people would like.
“I think the NFL has embraced the reality,” he says. “The denial is over. What the movie has done is synthesize Bennet’s story and put it in a place that’s now undeniable for them. It’s no longer 1491 and the world is no longer flat. Columbus has now discovered America. So that’s over. What they do now, I think, frankly, the league is dong what they can to make the game safer. And I think that what they can do is very, very limited. But I think that within the limits of what they can do, they’re trying to achieve something.”