Even though the NFL is America’s most popular sport, there’s growing concern about the safety of the game. Research in recent years has illustrated the correlation between football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease caused by multiple hits to the head. As a result, concussion awareness and minimizing risk are points of emphasis for the league, though for years they denied that players’ lives were in serious jeopardy.
That is the subject for the new drama Concussion, starring Will Smith as Dr. Bennett Omalu, a forensic neuropathologist who first discovered CTE in a deceased football player. His alarming discoveries forced him to take the NFL head-on, a tumultuous professional and personal battle that’s showcased in a new trailer for the film (watch it above).
The preview is very similar to the first trailer from a few months back, but it does provide some more story details. Viewers learn that Omalu was inspired to conduct brain research when (apparently healthy) former Pittsburgh Steelers player Mike Webster died at age 50. There’s also a greater look at the lengths the NFL went to to keep the findings under wraps, as Omalu is slammed with claims of fraud in order to discredit him.
Based on the footage shown, Concussion sports a vibe similar to Michael Mann’s 1999 film The Insider, which revolved around tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand and his struggle for justice. That would be a great project for Concussion to emulate, since The Insider was nominated for seven Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director. Though the creative team for Concussion is not as prolific (director Peter Landesman’s only other movie is Parkland), it still looks like something that could make a strong awards play for Sony this season.
If there are any warning signs, it’s that the trailer explicitly makes this a black and white issue, where the NFL is painted as the big bad and Omalu is the noble outsider fighting for a good cause. Nobody’s saying that the NFL was right for attempting to cover up the concussion research, but the portrayal presented here runs the risk of Concussion having a message that’s too preachy instead of telling a compelling, well-rounded narrative. Landesman does a great job of setting up high, dramatic stakes, but if the final product is too ploying to generate reactions, it could hurt the film’s reception.
Where we stand now, Sony appears confident that they have a winner. Not only is Concussion serving as the centerpiece for this year’s AFI fest (running November 5 – 12), it’s slated for theatrical release on Christmas Day. There, Concussion will face stiff competition including Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Joy (among others), so it will be interesting to see how audiences respond to it. Americans love their football, and this could make them feel uncomfortable about cheering on their team each Sunday. So even if Concussion receives Oscar-worthy reviews, it may face a tough uphill climb to stand out from the crowd and achieve substantial commercial success this holiday season.
Concussion opens in U.S. theaters on December 25th, 2015.