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Sony’s ‘Concussion’ Could Bring Laurels for Will Smith, Daggers From the NFL

League owners discussed how to respond to the film in May so controversy could be brewing.

Will Smith Concussion
Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Following the critical drubbing of wonky drama “Seven Pounds” and the box office disappointment of M. Night Shyamalan’s sci-fi clunker “After Earth,” actor Will Smith’s career seemed due for a realignment.

He signed on with a handful of indie directors breaking out into larger territory (Glenn Ficarra and John Requa’s “Focus,” Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s “Collateral Beauty”) and even dived headlong into Hollywood’s superhero revolution (David Ayer’s “Suicide Squad”). Tucked within are a pair of prestige dramas, one from Edward Zwick (“The American Can”) and the other a potential awards player this season (Peter Landesman’s “Concussion”). Let’s look at the latter, which debuted a teaser trailer Monday.

The film tells the story of Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian-born neuropathologist who was the first to blow the whistle on the NFL and the connection between brain trauma in football players and a sport where guys, you know, hit each other really hard. But it’s a topic that borders on Omerta with the league, a multibillion-dollar industry that “owns a day of the week,” to quote the film.

The first look came courtesy of Peter King’s Monday Morning Quarterback column at Sports Illustrated. King saw the film and spoke with Landesman, a former journalist who said he’s drawn to “David versus Goliath” stories like this and last year’s Jeremy Renner thriller “Kill the Messenger.” What’s interesting, about the trailer and Landesman’s patter, is that the film appears to be as much about an immigrant wanting a country to live up to its own ideal as it is about a little guy warring with an institution. “I thought this was another way to unpeel the layers away from the theater of it and the pageantry of it to get to the humanity of it,” Landesman told King.

That broader thematic context could make for powerful viewing this holiday season and even put Smith back in an awards discussion for the first time since the 2006 drama “The Pursuit of Happyness.” I’ve heard that if there is an Oscar play here, it’s Smith, who takes on an accent with ease and seems to be digging deep.

But this is also a film that feels primed for controversy. NFL owners reportedly spent “significant time” at a meeting in May discussing how to react and respond to the release of “Concussion.” King states outright that it’s “a movie the NFL is not going to like.” So keep your eyes peeled for the inevitable smear campaign if it threatens to take on the larger publicity profile of Oscar contender. We see it every year.

Check out the trailer below if you missed it this morning.