You have to see it to believe it.
I don’t often say that about films, let alone documentaries, but The American Gladiators makes every second of its 170 minutes into a captivating odyssey. Looking at the hit reality competition series that originally aired from 1989 to 1996, American Gladiators consisted of an ordinary athletic American going up against a huge, muscular ‘gladiator’. The series was a classic ‘David and Goliath’ story that captivated audiences across the country and, eventually, across the world. It was created by Johnny Ferraro, a man from Erie, Pennsylvania’s whose humble origins as a Elvis impersonator landed him in the midst of the right people. Using the same charisma that he used to become Elvis, he convinced Samuel Goldwyn films to make American Gladiators, an idea that he had originally pitched as a movie. From there, you not only discover who John Ferraro really is (or, rather, who he isn’t) through the people around him and the story of American Gladiators’ success but also the parasites that often plague the American success story.
The film channels The Social Network to show the eventual split between the show’s other creator Dann Carr and Ferraro. Gladiators gets into the differences between these men and the mystery behind why Dan isn’t part of the documentary. That investigation revealed the two sides of the American dream. On one side, there’s the flash, glamour, success and fame but, on the other, contentment with who you are, what you have done in this world and how that affects the people that you care most about. Ferraro forced most of the other people involved in American Gladiators to be content with who they were as he chased some dream version of himself. The film allows the people involved to speak their piece, give their perspective and ends up meditating on the value of truth and what that means when looking at a past full of heart, passion but also a lot of ugliness and deceit.
The American Gladiators is now playing at HotDocs ’23. For more information, click here.