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Arts and Entertainment

Will Smith Movie Criticizing NFL Had 'Unflattering' Scenes Removed

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A film about the NFL's attempted cover-up of brain trauma among former players is coming under fire for potentially being too soft on the league.Concussion, which will be released this December from Sony, stars Will Smith as
Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian-American forensic pathologist who first discovered what is now known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (or CTE) in the brains of former football players. The trailer for Concussion was released Monday and shows it to be a whistleblower drama a la The Insider (which was about Big Tobacco).

Emails uncovered in the Sony hack reveal that the studio softened the bite of several scenes and points in Concussion in order to avoid any legal issues with the NFL. A few emails, highlighted by the New York Times, show that studio executives and lawyers working on Concussion removed or altered "unflattering moments for the NFL" and took "most of the bite" out of the movie. One email by Sony's president of domestic marketing, Dwight Caines said, "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." A spokeswoman for Sony told the Times that the NFL consultant was not an actual NFL employee but "hired to deal with the NFL."

Director Peter Landesman and Sony both contend that the changes to the film weren't mean to soften the film, but to mainly avoid legal and libel issues with the league. "We don't want to give the NFL a toehold to say, 'They are making it up,' and damage the credibility of the movie," director Peter Landesman told the Times. "We didn't have a need to make up anything because it was powerful and revelatory on its own."

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"[The] New York Times article and headline, written by individuals who have not seen the film, contains many misleading inferences," a Sony Pictures spokesperson told The Hollywood Reporter. "As will become immediately clear to anyone actually seeing the movie, nothing with regard to this important story has been 'softened' to placate anyone."

"I can tell you my concern for the NFL and the studio's concern for the NFL was less than zero," Landesman told THR.

On Wednesday, THR revealed that one scene cut from the script by Landesman was due to defamation concerns, since it was based on second-hand accounts. In the scene, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell (played by Luke Wilson) learns from Dr. Elliot Pellman, former NFL head of concussion research, that former player Dave Duerson committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest, preserving his brain for research.

GOODELL: Jesus Christ. MAROON: He left a note. He wanted his brain donated. To be looked at. For CTE.

GOODELL: Good god. Was he symptomatic?

MAROON: I thought he was just an asshole.

Goodell's gone to stand at a window looking out at a massive lawn sloping down to the Long Island Sound.



MAROON: For the brain's last act to not just die, but preserve itself in the act of killing, humans don't do that.


We can't explain it. This is going to unravel.

An autopsy later revealed that Duerson was suffering from CTE before he killed himself. Pellman's remark that he thought Duerson was an "asshole" suggests the aggressive behavior that is a symptom of CTE. While he held his top position with the NFL, Pellman downplayed the risks associated with concussions and also sought to discredit research about the severity of head trauma caused by football.

Much like the controversy Sony faced for Zero Dark Thirty three years ago, critics have already piled on to Concussion without seeing the movie. This time, though, they now have the leaked emails and early scripts as their ammo. "The NFL didn't have to kill the concussion movie," says Deadspin in their own combing of the data dump. "Hollywood did it all on its own." As they point out, creating a dramatic plot surrounding the behind-the-scenes events at the NFL and the science behind CTE could largely be based on filling-the-blanks and conjecture, precluding any hopes of a film with actual teeth.

The Nation has a more optimistic take, with David Zirin citing trustworthy friends who have seen the final cut of the film who say that it doesn't take a compromised stand against the NFL. As for the negotiations and the process revealed in the leaked emails, Zirin says it's just part of the strategy when you go up against one of the most powerful entities in American life. "That's not about artistic or political compromise," he writes. "That's about how to most strategically wage a war against an opponent that’s in it for the kill."