Director: Alex Gibney
Writer: Jim Podhoretz and Larry Weitzman
Cinematographer: Ben Bloodwell and Boyd Estus
by Tory Maddox
I never heard of the position “Enforcer” in hockey. Simply put, they’re there to fight for the players that can’t fight for themselves. Some might never touch a puck in their lives. If they’re called upon, they go into the ring and try to ping the guy that’s giving the team problems. Considering their entire job is to fight it’s no wonder that the position cannot last all that long. The Last Gladiators was directed by Alex Gibney, who’s one of the best documentarians alive, of which I didn’t really notice the name until I started realizing a lot of really good stories were being told and were all done by the same man (Enron: Smartest Guys in the Room, Going Clear, Taxi to the Dark Side, Client 9, and so on).
The majority of the story sticks to one man, Chris Nilan, of Montreal Canadien fame. With one look at the guy and before a single word is spoken you know he’s a someone you wouldn't want to mess with. He has a strong face, piercing eyes, and a thick Boston accent. The story is edited in a way where we’re left wondering where he could’ve ended up after his enforcer days and we soon discover he spiraled down into a severe heroin and alcohol addiction. In a great scene, Nilan is dressed in a suit and talks about how one of his first post-hockey jobs was selling life insurance. After ten no’s, he had enough and began heading to the bar a bit earlier every night.
The overall exploration is what does a person do when they can no longer serve the purpose they believed they were designed to serve? After fighting and working so long to get where you want to go and with your body no longer able to operate the way it needs to, it’s no wonder that substance abuse stands to follow quickly after. I feel horrible for all the athletes that might have been drafted, but never could compete as well in the professional leagues. I know one guy who's a friend of a cousin who played for the Steelers. He never saw much game time, got let go, got recruited again, got cut once more, constantly moving back and forth between Pittsburgh and Chicago. There are opportunities for these individuals beyond the professional league - coaching college or the professional league, or maybe going into the normal life, but unless you're of the top 0.001% life as a professional athlete is difficult and in no way secure. I’m sure none of them regret getting as far as they did. I just don’t think they were prepared for the normal life.
The film is similar to No-No: A Documentary ('14) where the baseball player pitched a no-hitter on LSD (of which I’m was a turned off by the marketing as it seemed to celebrate the idea both in the synopsis and trailer, but the movie is a very an anti-drug film. Maybe it was the only way to get people to watch the film, since an anti-drug story isn't nearly as exciting). The problem is when you spend 75% of the movie telling all these hilarious and exciting stories about how everyone was taking greenies and doing coke and having wild times, and then only a fraction on the consequences of those decisions, it’s easy to see how many kids are going to ignore the latter and say they too can eventually clean themselves up after the hard journey. The Last Gladiators gets it right, balancing the horror with the glory.
BELOW: Interview with Chris Nilan about the film, giving a solid taste of how intimidating the guy is
Thoughts on films, old and new
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