Jeanne Marie Laskas, the writer of the article that serves as the basis of Concussion, tells Breitbart Sports that the film relies on fictionalized storytelling and does not play as a documentary.
“The movie is an adaptation of the GQ article,” Laskas told Breitbart Sports after a prescreening of Concussion held by MomsTeam in Boston last week. “That’s a distinction.”
The film appears as a biopic of sorts about Bennet Omalu, a coroner controversial to neurologists and other brain scientists for his sometimes-sensational claims regarding football and his scientific achievements. Despite the “based on a true story” boast at the beginning and Will Smith’s “tell the truth” catchphrase, Concussion creates numerous impressions that elicited criticism as at odds with actual events.
The Associated Press took issue with the film bestowing upon Omalu the distinction of discovering chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurological disease described in such terms in medical articles predating his existence, and Breitbart Sports highlighted numerous fantastical scenes in the film, including the notion that the NFL suppressed his scientific work—remarkably conveying the idea that the NFL caused his wife to miscarry and partnered with the FBI to bully the doctor—despite the reality of a journal widely derided as a mouthpiece for the league first publishing the work on CTE for which Omalu gained fame.
Slate’s Daniel Engber seized on the movie’s mischaracterization of an FBI raid on Omalu’s boss’s office. “The FBI did raid Wecht’s office, but that happened three months before Omalu published any of his research on brain injuries in football,” Engber writes. “The government did indict Omalu’s boss, but for reasons that had nothing whatsoever to do with the NFL or CTE, nor with the Nigerian-born pathologist whom Wecht had taken under his wing. And while the movie version of Omalu swears he’ll never testify against his mentor and then is banished from his office to a different job in the Central Valley of California, the real-life Omalu did show up in court as a witness for the prosecution and even made a bid for Wecht’s job.”
Laskas pointed out that a dramatic, fictionalized scene in Concussion depicting the down-and-almost-out Steelers linemen Mike Webster and Justin Strzelczyk commiserating over neurological issues appeared nowhere in her article or book. The pair never played together despite genuine confusion from people involved in the film that they did. She defends the use of such fictional vignettes for a movie touting at the outset “based on a true story”—a story initially told without dramatic license by Laskas—as necessary to present a compelling cinema narrative.
“When you’re looking at an adaption, you’re not looking at a documentary,” explained Laskas, who parlayed her initial GQ piece on Omalu into a book as well as a major motion picture. “The beats of the story are accurate. Those guys all actually died in those ways, suicide, and that damage was found in their brains. But the particulars are used to advance a story along based on the director’s sense of storytelling.”
Mike Webster died of a heart attack and Justin Strzelczyk died in a car wreck. But one gets the impression from Concussion, and perhaps from Laskas’s vague statement (“those guys”) to Breitbart Sports, that they killed themselves. Duerson and Waters surely committed suicide. But the suicide rates of NFL players fall short of the rates of both comparable men in society (by a lot) and Major League Baseball players (by a little). In 2013, reporting by Breitbart Sports compelled GamesOver, a group that long pushed the idea that NFL players kill themselves at six times the national average, to retract the claim. The New York Times, Time, The Washington Post, and other outlets pushing the claim have not corrected the record after the group responsible for the erroneous statistic did.
Concussion opened on Christmas Day to a domestic haul of of $4.3 million. The fifth-place finish put it behind Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Daddy’s Home, Sisters, and Joy, but ahead of the fellow sports-themed film Point Break at the holiday box office. The film sunk to number six on the weekend.