Review: The Last Gladiators (Like Bully, from the POV of the Bully)
Alex Gibney loves to find men who got lost behind the scenery. For his most recent doc The Last Gladiators (Phase4 Entertainment, 2/1) he's looking at the man who may be responsible for making Wayne Gretzky a celebrity and for transforming the previously civilized sport of Hockey (?) to the event of carnage and dental destruction it is today.
Hockey player Chris Nilan was Wayne Gretzky’s “enforcer”—his job was to (forcefully) clear his teammate's path to the goal. The damage he wrought was severe, reckless, unhinged. He wasn't much for making friends and his violent streak made him a hazard to everyone around him...as well as a valuable player.
Since his days playing, Nilan has gone through a great deal (substance addiction, divorce and loss) and through the movie, Nilan seems to realize hockey was his outlet for validated aggression. His instinct was destructive rather than protective; but it isn't anymore. Today he speaks publicly about his life and his anti-bullying efforts. In a way, the doc is Bully, grown up, and from the bully's perspective. As such it's a less likely activist tool...
Alex Gibney isn’t the most sensitive documentarian, but The Last Gladiators is more nuanced than Client 9 and less cut/pasted than Gonzo. It’s a patchwork of archival pix and footage but it’s strung together in ways that imply quite a lot about the way our culture has absorbed and marginalized violence and the violent. Nilan is the film's subject, but also its totem: he stood alongside Gretzky and was seldom given spotlight, but he was also a leviathan on a frozen lake. He pummeled hockey players and cowered to no one. His aggression was harnessed and put to use as spectacle. He had a place for this unfiltered animus to go. And it was a golden era.