I have my mother’s hands, actually.
That’s how Alex Gibney’s remarkable documentary, “The Last Gladiators,” begins: a tight close-up of a pair of hands that are small, delicate, and fragile looking. The camera stays focussed on those hands as their owner, Chris “Knuckles” Nilan, describes the abuse they took over a 13-year NHL career. Throughout the opening two minutes of the film, the camera doesn’t leave his hands: we get to know his knuckles before we ever see Nilan’s face.
It’s an appropriate opening, as many hockey fans likely know far more about Nilan’s fists than they know about Nilan as a person. “The Last Gladiators” changes that, giving an unprecedented look into the life of an NHL enforcer. Toward the end of the film, while working with a public speaking coach, Nilan seems uncomfortable introducing himself as “Knuckles.” His coach suggests instead, ”I bet some of you in this audience know me as “Knuckles” Nilan. I prefer ‘Chris’.” More than anything, this is a film about Chris.
One of the most impressive accomplishments of “The Last Gladiators” is how Gibney completely removes himself from the film. There is no voiceover narration, no audible questions from off-camera during the interviews, and no editorializing. The only voices in the film are those of Nilan and his family, friends, teammates, opponents, and various media members he encountered throughout his career.
In fact, it’s one of the most pure documentaries I have seen in a long time, in that it simply documents Chris Nilan’s life without editorializing. Because of this, the emotion in the film feels genuine. Nilan’s story is compelling enough on its own that Gibney simply gets out of the way and allows Nilan and his compatriots to tell it. That seems a lot easier than it is and Gibney deserves to be commended.
Along the way, he delivers a crash course on the history of fighting in hockey and the state of enforcement in the modern game.
I’m not going down. I ain’t going down.
One of the major components to the film deals with Nilan’s struggles with alcohol and drug abuse after he retired from hockey. The making of the film happened to coincide with the death of Bob Probert, who makes a brief appearance. Shots of his funeral, which Nilan attended, are used at the point of the film when Nilan is just reaching his lowest point, underlining just what is at risk, while Michael Farber of Sports Illustrated speculates that it’s the job that leads to these difficulties after retirement. The film notes the deaths of Rick Rypien, Derek Boogaard, and Wade Belak without comment at the end.
At the same time, several of the enforcers interviewed express their love for fighting and how they have no regrets, with one enforcer wishing he could go back to being 18, so he could do it all over again. Tony Twist sums up the memories of his NHL career with, “I loved fighting…it was awesome.”
This is when the film is at its best, showing both the glories and the tragedies of the hockey enforcer. It helps that Nilan’s story has such a defined arc that takes him through those exact glories and tragedies. There is the rise from growing up in Boston with a tough and “aggressive” father (“He’s slap me and he’d punch me”) to getting drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in the 17th round and winning the Stanley Cup with the Canadiens in 1986. Then there is the fall, starting with getting traded to the New York Rangers, gradually getting beaten down by a long string of injuries, retiring from the game, and losing direction without the game of hockey to guide him.
It’s a powerful story made all the more powerful by Nilan’s emotional recounting of it. It’s tough not to be affected when Nilan tears up while talking about the Canadiens greats like Bob Gainey and Larry Robinson who helped him with his skating and puckhandling and how Jacque Lemaire gave him the chance to be more than just a fighter, leading to 16, 21, and 19-goal seasons.
To do it there. To me, It meant so much more than if I was a Mighty Duck.
The film found exactly the right story and exactly the right person to tell it. Nilan is charming, relateable, and funny, but he is also emotional and honest. What comes through most is his love for the game of hockey and particularly for the Montreal Canadiens. When he talks about how much hockey meant to him – right from when he was a kid heading in the wrong direction who needed hockey to keep him out of trouble – it’s not surprising that his life took a turn when he left the game.
When the story hits that low point, Gibney turns to Nilan’s family to drive home that it doesn’t just impact the person going through the pain; that pain extends outward and effects everyone that person is closest to. His father weeps and struggles to get words out, eventually saying that he wishes Chris had never played hockey. That’s a wish that Chris would most certainly not share.
Hockey fans need to see “The Last Gladiators,” no matter their stance on fighting in hockey. I’ve made my own stance on the subject pretty clear. The reason this film is important is that it forces you to see the man behind the fists, to see Chris instead of Knuckles.
For fans of fighting, it’s a chance to get to know one of their heroes and challenge some of their beliefs with the consequences of a career as an enforcer. For detractors of fighting, it’s a chance to see why fighting exists in hockey in the first place and why it’s still seen as important. For both, it provides a look into the lives of people who likely love hockey more than any fan ever will. These are people who love hockey so much that they will literally fight for it. At a time like this, such a passion for the game is immensely refreshing.