Will Smith stars as Dr. Bennet Omalu in Concussion. Credit: Columbia Pictures/AP

Thirteen years ago Roger Ebert made an argument for making things up—one I’ve wrestled with ever since.

Ebert was taking a “great movies” look back at Oliver Stone’s JFK, to which he’d given four stars when it was released in 1991. Ebert recalled that after writing his original review he ran into Walter Cronkite, who completely disagreed with Ebert’s approval.

“There was not,” said Cronkite, “a shred of truth in it. It was a mishmash of fabrications and paranoid fantasies.”

Ebert then explained why he believed this observation was beside the point:

I have no doubt Cronkite was correct, from his point of view. But I am a film critic and my assignment is different than his. He wants facts. I want moods, tones, fears, imaginings, whims, speculations, nightmares. As a general principle, I believe films are the wrong medium for fact. Fact belongs in print. Films are about emotions. My notion is that “JFK” is no more, or less, factual than Stone’s “Nixon” or “Gandhi,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Gladiator,” “Amistad,” “Out of Africa,” “My Dog Skip” or any other movie based on “real life.” All we can reasonably ask is that it be skillfully made and seem to approach some kind of emotional truth.

Given that standard, “JFK” is a masterpiece. 

But who is the “we” doing the asking?

If the entertainment in question is, say, Richard III or Lincoln, the “we” is everybody. But that’s not always the case.

Suppose the entertainment is Concussion, a feature film that dramatizes the discovery of epidemic levels of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) among retired pro football players. There’s a scene, the New York Times tells us, in which Dave Duerson—a former all-pro safety for the Chicago Bears played here by actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje—”confronts the film’s protagonist, the pathologist Bennet Omalu [played by actor Will Smith]. . . . Duerson blocks the Nigerian-born Omalu from entering a medical conference, calls him a quack, and tells him to go back to Africa and to ‘get away from our game.'”

Understandably, whatever emotional truth this scene embodies is lost on the real Duerson’s family. They told the Times that the scene, and at least one other that paints Duerson in the same negative light, are bogus.

“They completely made up stuff,” said Duerson’s son Tregg. “They needed a villain, someone to take the fall, and he’s not here to defend himself.” 

In 2011, after writing out careful instructions for his brain to be harvested and studied, Duerson committed suicide by shooting himself in the heart. His instructions were carried out and pathologists found his brain was riddled with CTE.  

The problem with “emotional truth”—as distinct from factual truth—is that it’s contingent on the emotions we bring to it; Tregg would have entered the theater too burdened by loyalty to his father to forgive the movie for making up things he did that never happened. To us it may be emotional truth; to him it’s misrepresentation. 

I haven’t seen Concussion. Even so, Duerson is such a complex and ambiguous figure in the saga of CTE that I’m wondering if it might have been better if he’d been the protagonist, instead of the stubborn and heroic Omalu.

Duerson prospered after his playing days were over, thriving in business, sitting on the board of trustees of his alma mater, Notre Dame, and late in his life sitting on an NFL board that considered disability claims brought by former players. For whatever reason—perhaps because his mind was starting to disintegrate—Duerson routinely voted against these players. His hostility is the basis of his function as a villain in Concussion.

If the movie had told Duerson’s story it probably could be forgiven for stretching, massaging, and mythologizing it as necessary to dramatize the tragedy. But in the Concussion that was made, he’s a small part, and the odd thing about drama is that the smaller the part somebody real plays in it the stronger the obligation to at least get the facts right. Otherwise, why bother? Otherwise, why not change the name or make him one of those “composite characters” that movies so happily fob off on us in the name of dramatic truth?

“People go to movies not to digest information and data but to have an emotional experience,” Concussion’s director, Peter Landesman, told the Times. “The movie is emotionally and spiritually accurate all the way through.”

Spiritual accuracy is something that exists in the soul of the beholder, I suppose, but I’m not sure what it means. If after Barack Obama leaves office a movie is made that portrays him as a Muslim out of Indonesia who comes to America and plots to impose socialist tyranny on its people, some people might praise it for its “spiritual accuracy.” Few newspaper critics would join that chorus.

Duerson’s college coach his first couple of years at Notre Dame was Dan Devine. A few years before Duerson was an All-American there, Daniel E. “Rudy” Ruettiger was an undersize practice-squad walk-on who never came close to smelling the field on Saturdays. Do you remember the 1993 film Rudy, which Ebert praised for its “attention to detail” and its “close observation of the characters”? The drama comes down to the final seconds of the final game of Rudy’s senior year in 1975, when Rudy finally gets to see action. His coach didn’t even want him to dress (Rudy’s teammates insisted on it) and he’s furious to see Rudy enter the game. But to hell with the coach! Rudy sacks the quarterback as the game ends and his teammates carry him off the field.

That coach was Devine—in his first year at Notre Dame—and if the truth be told, he’d wanted Rudy to dress, and he’d wanted him to play, and he’d agreed to be portrayed as a heavy if it would help along the movie. But he said later that “I didn’t think I’d be the worst guy in the movie.” 

When I saw Rudy, my problem—which, grant you, I probably shared with nobody else in the theater—is that Devine had coached at Missouri when I was a student there, and his behavior in the movie was so wildly out of character that I couldn’t buy it for a second. If Duerson was reduced to an expedient, Devine was an expedient that that contradicted everything I remembered about him.

This seems to be the problem a movie faces when it sacrifices the facts to emotional truths. If you’re not in the mood to buy into those truths, you sit there amazed and distracted by lies.