‘Concussion’ Lines Up Against Controversy

A storm could be brewing around one of the few films this season with a sheen of immediacy.

Three years ago, in a move that set the bar for Oscar season politicking, a bloc of U.S. senators trashed Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty.” They perceived the film, about the capture of Osama bin Laden, to be so potentially damaging that it was necessary to tarnish its image in Hollywood. Was the picture destined for Oscar greatness? Of its five nominations, including best picture, it won only one, for sound editing. While the effect of the senators’ campaign can never be known, the controversy was unusual, even for this time of year. Yet a similar storm could be brewing over the upcoming release of Peter Landesman’s “Concussion,” premiering tonight as a centerpiece selection of AFI Fest.

The film, about Nigerian-born Dr. Bennet Omalu’s research into football’s effects on the brains of deceased players (specifically concerning repeated head trauma), will not make National Football League owners happy. It depicts not only Omalu’s attempts to hold the NFL’s feet to the fire for turning a blind eye to the subject, but also shows the league’s efforts to distort and discredit his findings. While the picture pays lip service to the “grace” and “Shakespearean” romance of the game, those moments stick out like a sore thumb in a movie that comes down hard on corporate negligence and malfeasance.

Big Football hasn’t shied away from the debate, ahead of the film’s Christmas release. NFL senior VP of health and safety policy Jeff Miller has said the league would be willing to work with Sony, the studio releasing the movie, on raising awareness of the issue. I’m also told the NFL won’t fight the purchase of “Concussion” ads against games.

But internally at Sony, “everyone is nervous about what’s going to happen,” a source said — perhaps with good reason. A Sept. 1 New York Times story concluded that the film was altered to avoid the league’s wrath, positioning emails from the Sony hack as (perhaps overstated) evidence. Some feel it was a well-orchestrated hit piece, and with an upcoming “60 Minutes” segment set to focus on the NFL’s ongoing handling of safety concerns, alert status at the studio is high.

Come what may, “Concussion” is poised to shake up the awards race. It’s a star vehicle featuring one of Will Smith’s best performances, as a man passionately living the American dream, only to have it threatened by one of the country’s most popular institutions. Albert Brooks could factor into the supporting actor mix, playing fatherly medical examiner Cyril Wecht, a mentor of Omalu’s who stood up for the good doctor even as a federal investigation attempted to smear him. And a soulful original song by Leon Bridges, “So Long,” figures to be part of the conversation not only for Oscar, but also when his name is bandied about for best new artist consideration in the run-up to the Grammys next year.

The movie could even contend for best picture, particularly with the fortunes of Sony’s other hopeful, “The Walk,” waning. Moreover, few films in the race have “Concussion’s” sheen of immediacy: Oscar voting closes scarcely two weeks after this year’s Super Bowl.

But as seen with “Zero Dark Thirty,” contentious films can breed chaos when they’re caught in the awards spotlight. Others have already weathered their share this year: CBS refused ad buys for James Vanderbuilt’s “Rathergate” drama “Truth”; friends and colleagues of the late Steve Jobs have declared Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin’s depiction of the man’s life and times a fiction.

Then again, reactions aren’t predictable. Open Road Films was no doubt caught off guard when Boston Archbishop Sean Patrick O’Malley issued a statement of support last month for “Spotlight,” about the Catholic church’s child abuse scandal.

So will “Concussion” score its points and eventually retire as a quality year-end drama, or will a corporate sacking of the film prove Sony’s nail-biting warranted?

A kickoff to controversy looms.

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