An incredible true David vs. Goliath story
Will Smith stars in Concussion, a dramatic thriller based on the incredible true David vs. Goliath story of American immigrant Dr. Bennet Omalu, the brilliant forensic neuropathologist who made an important medical discovery. Dr. Omalu’s emotional quest puts him at dangerous odds with one of the most powerful institutions in the world.
Written and directed by Peter Landesman, Cocussion is based on the GQ article “Game Brain” by Jeanne Marie Laskas.
“I identify with whistleblowers, truth-tellers, people working against the system, David versus Goliath stories,” says Landesman.
“The idea that it is this man who is left to tell the truth, our truth, about us, about a thing we love, is poetic and astonishing. All he wants to do is be an American, tell the truth, and be good.”
“Peter has a really unique skill set,” says Will Smith, who stars as Dr. Omalu. “Peter is an investigative reporter. He’s used to going into the minutia of a circumstance and a person – he’s used to going broad and deep with things in a way that you generally wouldn’t do with a movie. Yet he’s also a painter, so he takes all of that and he translates it into imagery, which is a really rare gift.”
“At the center of this film is a man who was delivered a truth about a game that he had no connection to, but he had to deliver painful information to a group of people that he had a deep desire to be accepted by,” adds Smith. Just as Dr. Omalu, an immigrant from Nigeria, yearned to become an American, his discovery would lead to his being smeared.
“For myself, in this process I don’t think about football – my focus is on Bennet and the pain and triumph of the story of an immigrant who came to America, suffered what he had to suffer, and ultimately was vindicated,” Smith continues. “I look at this film as the close of a chapter for Bennet. This is a man who was born during an air raid in Nigeria. His mother was hit by shrapnel when he was being delivered. To go from there, to go through the suffering of bringing this story to the American public, and then to have your life story told through a Hollywood film – that’s a beautiful hero’s journey.”
For writer and director Peter Landesman, the film is about much more than football. “Professional football is more than a sport. More than a business. It is a cultural and national institution. Much is at stake – culturally, socially, and economically. And like any gigantic business, there are powerful interests invested in keeping it going, no matter the cost. When Dr. Omalu made a discovery that threatened not just business as usual, but the very fabric of the game – the hits, the violence – those interests went into high gear. But Dr. Omalu was focused only on the truth, and the spirit of the dead, and was determined to make the facts known. I hope the film does that too. The stakes couldn’t be higher.”
Producer Giannina Scott adds, “Concussion is a powerful and uncompromising film about an issue that was ignored for far too long and continues to play out today. It’s a story that had to be told, and we were determined to tell it right. No one wanted to touch it, being such a hot subject. Ridley and I were turned down everywhere, including writers, until Peter was suggested. He clearly was the perfect writer and director. We then pitched to Amy Pascal, who bought it in the room.”
Producer David Wolthoff, who with producer Larry Shuman first saw Dr. Omalu’s story as a potential film, with Shuman’s company originally optioning the rights to Jeanne Marie Laskas’ article in GQ, says, “At its core, Bennet’s story is the story of this genius doctor – an Erin Brockovich kind of character – who perseveres in the face of all adversity.”
“Concussion gives us a window into the larger-than-life spirit of Dr. Omalu, and fortunately, we have Will Smith to capture his essence,” says Shuman.
To this day, it’s hard for Dr. Omalu to believe that it was he who made the discovery. “This cannot be – a poor African boy like me, coming to America, where you have the largest concentration of brilliant minds – I’m the first to see this? It’s not possible.”
After his discovery of chronic brain injury in sports players, Dr. Omalu published his findings. He expected to begin a serious discussion of a safer way to play the game. Instead, he found himself and his family in the crosshairs, the subject of a vicious and nerve-wracking campaign to discredit him by some of the sport’s most powerful interests. “Twelve years later, I can’t believe how bold and audacious I was in that paper,” he says. “For twelve years, I’ve been bruised and burned. That paper was very idealistic. But there was nothing that I said in that paper that has not been confirmed by independent researchers.”
Despite being vilified and smeared, Dr. Omalu persevered, says Giannina Scott. “The time frame of Concussion is from 2002 to 2012, and it took all that time for the information to get out to the public,” she says. “By the time we began making the movie, there was a recognition of concussions and a settlement. It was all a vindication of Dr. Omalu.”
For Giannina Scott, that perseverance is the reason why Dr. Omalu is a hero. “He could have given up, but he didn’t,” she says. “Why did he put himself through this? Because he felt a sense of duty to tell the truth.”
“I never wanted this to be about me, but about the players,” says Dr. Omalu. I believe it is the spirit of people like Mike Webster, like Terry Long, like Andre Waters, like Junior Seau, that was pushing this forward. This is about love and light, saving lives, and enhancing the lives of others.”
Dr. Omalu’s story was told in depth in a GQ magazine article by Jeanne Marie Laskas, which became the basis for Landesman’s screenplay. “Her article is the best I’ve read on this topic,” says Dr. Omalu. “She humanized me. Remember, everything about me in the media was negative – I was this alien who worked to destroy the way of life in America. That article was a game-changer. Suddenly, people started opening their hearts and minds to me.”
Dr. Omalu approaches his work with a dignity and reverence for the dead. “I’m Roman Catholic by faith,” he says. “My faith teaches us that when the body dies, your spirit and soul progress to eternal life. I believe the spirit is still with us, just like the spirit of God is with us. So, I talk to my patients – not verbally, but in my heart.”
Will Smith was able to observe Dr. Omalu in his practice. “Bennet is a forensic pathologist and he performs autopsies daily, so he spends a lot of time with dead bodies. But he’s also a deeply religious man,” says Smith. “He thinks of his job as a forensic pathologist more as a deliverer of souls – the last threshold guardian between this realm and the next. He’s a deeply spiritual man, and when he’s performing an autopsy, it’s a spiritual experience for him. He has a wonderful sixth sense about trying to figure out how a person died. He’ll go through their clothes and look and he’s trying to get them to help him figure out how they died. It’s a beautiful thing to watch.”
One of the patients that Dr. Omalu figuratively spoke to was Mike Webster, the football hero, in whose brain Dr. Omalu first found CTE. During the initial autopsy, “I asked Mike to guide me,” he recalls. Though Webster’s brain looked normal at first, Dr. Omalu was aware that Webster had suffered from severe neurological problems, and he made a critical decision to preserve Webster’s brain for further study – an unusual choice, and one that led directly to his eventual discovery of CTE. “I could have put it back in the body like every other organ, but I believe the spirit of Mike guided me.”
The film chronicles not only Dr. Omalu’s discovery, but the campaign that followed to sideline his findings. Bringing Dr. Omalu’s story to life is Peter Landesman, who wrote the screenplay and directs the project. Years ago, Landesman – a former investigative journalist – had researched and met with Dr. Omalu. So, when the Scotts approached Landesman to write, it was destiny. “I already knew about Bennet, had met Bennet, had thought about Bennet, had metabolized what his life story was,” he says.
“I start each of my scripts by going on a journey of painstaking research and discovery, much as I do a piece of long-lead journalism,” says Landesman. “Once I’m inside the beast of the truth, then I can find the shape and architecture of the movie. It was more true with this film than any other. I listened hard to what the movie wanted to be – its shape, its focus. There is a version of this movie that is as much about the NFL as Bennet. But Bennet – his journey, his task, his burden – was utterly unique. Compounding that with the idea of Will – writing this for Will, with his voice and physicality in mind – made me feel I was writing as much a piece of music as I was a screenplay.”
In creating his film, Landesman shot on location in Pittsburgh, choosing to work with some of the most acclaimed creative personnel in the business – Salvatore Totino, who has collaborated on seven films with director Ron Howard; production designer David Crank, an Emmy winner for his work on “John Adams,” a collaborator with Paul Thomas Anderson, and art director on such films as Lincoln, Water for Elephants, and The Tree of Life; editor William Goldenberg, a five-time Oscar® nominee and winner for his work on Argo; costume designer Dayna Pink, who previously teamed with Will Smith on Focus; and eight-time Oscar®-nominated composer James Newton Howard.
“There was a choice: you could make this movie very cold and scientific, with people moving through the story of the brain study, or you could make it about the people,” says Giannina Scott. “And that was a decision that Peter made and that Sal has brought to the photography. It’s the best kind of moviemaking where you can identify with the characters.”
“Bennet’s prime relationships were with the dead – the dead in a city that was economically on life support,” Landesman continues. “Pittsburgh citizens clinging to their game, football, that Bennet found was damaging – in some cases killing – its players. Not just in the photography, but in the writing, on the page, the cityscape was the external mirror of Bennet’s journey.”