EXCLUSIVE: The makers of Concussion, the film that stars Will Smith as the forensic neuro-pathologist who discovered the CTE disease that debilitated the brains of football greats like Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster, are again bracing for a potentially concussive hit by the New York Times. In a move that has created internal tension within the newspaper, a planned story has been scratched by its movie guys Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes about the David vs. Goliath battle between Dr. Bennet Omalu and the National Football League. Instead, the newspaper will run a critical article — I’ve heard it accuses the film of taking dramatic license in its depiction of the late Chicago Bears star Dave Duerson, whose suicide by shotgun blast to the chest (to preserve his brain for autopsy) is a plot point of the film.
The article, fueled by Duerson’s family, is being written by Ken Belson, the same Times sportswriter who authored a provocative and roundly disputed September 1 front-page story titled Sony Altered ‘Concussion’ Film To Prevent NFL Protests, Emails Show. The article used hacked Sony emails to fuel what turned out to be an unfounded allegation: that Sony and Concussion filmmakers softened their film in deference to the NFL. Many have seen the film since it premiered at AFI, including me. Belson’s assertions were wrong, and Sony Pictures movie chief Tom Rothman blasted the article in a recent discussion with ESPN’s Hannah Storm at the Paley Center.
It isn’t immediately clear whether the Arts section writers who cover Hollywood as their beats were called off the story or bailed after the Sports department won a turf battle to make a second critical story the newspaper’s priority. A NYT spokeswoman said, “We don’t comment on what may or may not appear in future editions of The Times.” Sony also declined comment. I’m told this has created internal rancor within the newspaper and it raises the question of why Belson and the sports section seem so bent on discrediting a film when its first article was misguided. Concussion director Peter Landesman told Deadline on the day that first story ran that neither he nor the studio had any exchanges with the league and that any scenes cut were done so because they couldn’t be independently corroborated. What is depicted onscreen is factually accurate, he said, an assertion that might come under new scrutiny with the planned NYT piece.
I saw Concussion after that first article appeared, and the concerns raised through Belson’s examination of stolen emails from the likes of marketing executive Dwight Caines (who doesn’t control what appears onscreen), didn’t in my opinion support the conclusions of a reporter who hadn’t seen the film and maybe still hasn’t. It looked to me like that hacked email correspondence reflected normal due diligence discussions in vetting a fact-based hot-button film. In Concussion, the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell are depicted as the heavies in a movie that brazenly uses NFL game footage and team logos without authorization. This is similar to the way that the studio proceeded with The Social Network, when the filmmakers refused to rename characters or fictionalize story lines requested by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and Zero Dark Thirty.
Curious in all this are the underlying ties between the newspaper, the Concussion story line, and Landesman. Landesman became a screenwriter after selling screen rights to several articles he wrote for NYT Magazine, where he worked before he became a director. Many of the revelations shown in Concussion were unearthed in NYT stories written by Alan Schwarz in over 100 early stories on football concussions and CTE, many of which originated in the Sports section. While NYT isn’t involved, Schwarz sold those story rights to a rival project at New Regency, one that has 8 Mile and The Fighter scribe Scott Silver and Gone Girl and Social Network helmer David Fincher at its center, along with rights to participants in the story who didn’t align with Concussion. Beaten to the screen by Concussion, the other project is moving full-speed ahead as a miniseries that will tell a longer story about the still-evolving subject of football concussions, how the NFL is handling it, and the long-term effect on players.
It is a hot-button issue for America’s biggest sport that continues to grow in scope, after former gridiron greats like Duerson and Junior Seau committed suicide and others like Chicago Bears QB Jim McMahon are suffering. Some former stars have publicly said they would not let their children or grandchildren play tackle football and wished they had known the long-term risks of the cumulative collisions and concussions that are an unavoidable part of an inherently violent game.
It is unclear whether any of these factors played a role in the tone of the newspaper’s Concussion coverage, but there certainly seem to be frosty feelings between all parties here. A story reflecting the unhappiness of the family of Duerson is fair game, but it is unusual that the other story was scrubbed, and it certainly depicts the newspaper as being back in blitz mode even after Belson’s first article drew scrutiny from the paper’s own public editor, Margaret Sullivan. She wrote a postmortem after Sony complained that NYT unfairly bashed a film on its front page before nearly anyone — including the reporter — had actually seen it. Even though she felt the story mostly passed muster, Sullivan wrote that its appearance on Page One inferred “something dastardly took place behind the scenes. I don’t think that was the case.” In addressing the use of Sony hack documents, Sullivan acknowledged the potentially slippery slope, but wrote: “Here’s an adage worth recalling: “News is what someone doesn’t want you to know. The rest is advertising.”
I could counter that those documents have created misguided impressions like the ones in Belson’s NYT story and others on gender disparity, but that’s secondary to how the newspaper will depict the movie in Belson’s next dispatch that arrives later this week. It is always possible editors will push the movie journalists to revive their piece, but at this moment it was scratched. The film opens Christmas Day.