The popularity of sports documentaries is not recognized enough. Maybe it’s because a lot of the favorites find their audience on TV, particularly as part of ESPN’s “30 for 30” series. Perhaps they aren’t considered “important” enough by the documentary community, even when they deal with serious issues as in the case of Steve James’s most recent and most overlooked film, Head Games. Like music docs, they may be disregarded as insignificant fare mainly targeted to a particular fanbase. But with many sports, that’s a very large fanbase we’re talking about.
Professional ice hockey is the least followed of the four major team sports in America, but millions of people do watch it, and the number has been on the rise these past few years. So, there’s definitely a large demographic who’ll be interested in Alex Gibney’s The Last Gladiators, a documentary about NHL enforcers with a predominant focus on former Montreal Canadiens “goon” Chris “Knuckles” Nilan. This is a demo that likely won’t know or even think about the fact that this film was made by a tremendously prolific and highly acclaimed director. Many of them would sooner see this than Gibney’s other new docs, which tackle sexually abusive priests and the story of Wikileaks, and they very well might have seen his baseball doc, Catching Hell, but not his Oscar-winning doc, Taxi to the Dark Side.
On the other end are those of us who aren’t fans of the sport and might avoid a doc like Gladiators if we have to choose (which may be the case with Gibney given his output over the years) or if we’re less aware of them (compared to some of his “more significant” works, this one has been in a sort of limbo since premiering at the Toronto Film Festival in 2011). It doesn’t help that Catching Hell, while an often engrossing look at two infamous end-of-season incidents in Major League Baseball, is indeed a lesser and quite problematic work for the usually solid filmmaker.
There are far fewer complaints to be had with Gladiators. Nilan is a likable brute, charming and emotional and able to engage us with the story of his life and career, his downfall and ongoing rehabilitation. At least for a non-fan like myself, the history of enforcers and fighting in the NHL throughout the ‘80s and early ‘90s, which serve as a backdrop for the biographical aspect, is fully explored and compelling stuff. Yet outsiders could want for some more explanation of the league rules during the time — not that we can’t just read up on that context afterward.
What really allows this doc to transcend the sports fan demo is its correlation to a number of war veteran films we’ve seen in the past decade. Nilan’s rise and fall is one thing, but more interesting is the psychological cultivation that came with his position and the expectations put on him to be a fighter out on the ice. Like the soldier who comes home and has trouble reintegrating into society, Nilan and other enforcers from the toughest era of the NHL seem too prone to violence off the ice, especially post-retirement. As Nilan notes at the beginning of the film, watching fighting in hockey for many fans is a way of vicariously letting out aggression. Now, imagine those who regularly literally performed this aggressive outlet no longer having it.
But it’s not just the violent psychology that aligns ice hockey enforcers with, say, Iraq War vets in Gibney’s film. It’s not clearly intentional (and may not be at all), but Gladiators features a comment about the NHL draft comparing it to a military service draft. There’s another moment regarding Nilan’s post-retirement obsession with Band of Brothers. These little references to war easily make one think of docs like Hell and Back Again, The Ground Truth, When I Came Home and others in the subgenre.
While there are parallels involving substance abuse, physical abuses and other such issues, however, there’s never indication that these retired athletes suffer anything remotely like PTSD. So, surely there is no complete comparison between being in a hockey fight and being in deadly combat. Gladiators more shows us that the mindset going in is of a similar nature, albeit on a lesser scale. That goes along, then, with the idea that sports docs are of lesser significance than docs like Hell and Back Again. In a way, for the players, the trip of an enforcer in and out of the pros is more like one to heaven and then back to the mundane again.
It’s hard to tell what Gibney’s point for the film is in the end, actually. Does he mean for such comparison? Is he against violence in hockey? Is he against even the accepted fighting that can lead to greater violence on and off the ice? Does he simply want to tell Nilan’s story and supplement it with others’ in order to show that his mistakes are not uncommon or unexpected for a man who’d filled the enforcer role? Not every nonfiction tale has to have a message, and not all of Gibney’s do, but there does seem to be one missing at the end of this one.
The Upside: Gibney, always a master of the documentary interview, gives us another captivating talking head in Chris Nilan.
The Downside: It’s hard to tell what Gibney is ultimately trying to show and say about the sport and the conditioning of enforcers as soldiers.
On the Side: Gibney’s next documentary dealing with sports, which he’s been working on for many years, will definitely receive a lot of attention, as it’s about Lance Armstrong.
The Last Gladiators is now playing in limited release and will be available On Demand and as a digital download starting February 8.