Tom Brady’s public persona is forged on the field and in press statements, in post-game comments, and in the emotional projections of sportswriters, radio hosts, and fans. Even when there’s a book like “The TB12 Method,” it’s scrupulously managed with plenty of behind-the-scenes help.
Long story short, as the rare New Englander who has never been interested in football and isn’t about to start, I’ve always found Brady to be a cipher. He’s hidden beneath padding and a helmet when he’s doing what he’s celebrated for, and, anyway, we tend to think of great athletes as “natural talents” rather than as vehicles of articulate expression (even when they are). The personalities I write about — movie actors — come packaged in filmed media with attached narratives. While a game (and a season) have narratives that reveal themselves over time, rarely do we get to see Brady as a “star” in the conventional pop culture sense.
Which is what makes “Tom vs Time,” the series of documentary shorts on Facebook Watch, so interesting.
Directed by Gotham Chopra (Deepak’s son), the six-part series of 15-minute films — four of which have been posted to date — does a fair job of balancing hero-worship hagiography with a candid sense of what Brady is like when he’s off the field. The series’ hook is that the legendary quarterback is now 40, which in the world of professional sports renders him a doddering ancient — not a pitch with which this 60-year-old is inclined to sympathize.
Watch episode 1
I’m more beguiled by the scenes in “Tom vs Time” of a guy many of us consider a God (or Satan, if you’re from the Lower 42 outside New England) going about his daily life. Brady doesn’t have the dazzling surface personality of a professional entertainer, and his deep thoughts as expressed in the series’ head-on interviews can veer toward the banal and the bromidal. But they’re his thoughts, honestly arrived at and stated. The Tom Brady on display here seems smart, decent, devoted to his family, obsessively focused on both the mind and body aspects of his sport, not without insecurities, and just a little dull. He seems authentic.
We value authenticity — or its semblance — in all our celebrities, but especially in our famous athletes. If we’re going to buy in, their skills can’t seem to be put on or faked but need to be the products of innate talent and conscious practice and improvement. Verbal skills and a healthy public ego aren’t necessary to the equation. There are the great exceptions — Ali, Joe Namath, Serena Williams — but the more accepted posture is one of taciturn humility and getting the job done. Stray too far into showboating, and you become Dennis Rodman.
So “Tom vs Time” is a fan’s note that also lets the Brady persona uncurl onscreen a little more than we (and maybe he) are used to. This makes some people antsy, like the WEEI radio jock who got sidelined for saying rude things about the quarterback’s young daughter (real men keep their children unseen and unheard, I guess), or the minor kerfuffle over Brady kissing his son on the mouth. (In Episode 4, we glimpse an old photo of Tom Brady Sr. kissing young Tom on the mouth, so it’s a family thing. Whatever. Affection is good.)
Watch episode 2
What’s most interesting is the way the series takes a figure we tend to think of as standing apart and connects him to a larger web of family, friends, and fellow players. (The fans have remained mostly off-screen in the series so far, and Chopra doesn’t go near the business end of the Patriots and the NFL.) The third episode, “The Social Game,” humanizes the relationships Brady has with teammates Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman during training offsite (it’s worth noting that the series as a whole is very, very white), and sequences with Brady’s son Jack and his mother, Galynn, don’t feel exploitive. On the contrary, they’re intimate and moving — they seem to let us peek in.
This humanizing almost seems to go against what makes Brady such a storied figure in New England and a potent love-him-or-hate-him archetype elsewhere. Usually we just attach ourselves to his performance on a football field and in the process hang an immense amount of emotion on a distant and swiftly moving object. It’s worth asking: Why do we love our athletic stars so ferociously? Why do we cling to them with such psychic need?
Watch episode 3
Here’s a theory and it’s hardly a new one: They make us forget, for four quarters or nine innings or 15 rounds, that everything turns to crap and that we’re all going to die. Organized sports offer the illusion of controlling the uncontrollable, overcoming it, and, above all, winning. They tell us that winning matters, that winning will change things, that winning will keep us alive, when the certainty is that each of us — even our sports gods — will someday lose health and lives. Winning is temporary and it’s provisional, but it feels amazing. When the Sox finally clinched the World Series in 2004, it was like I was literally aging in reverse.
No wonder we’re hooked on football like a nation of crack addicts. We need the illusion that the high will last forever. That illusion is right there in the documentary series’ title. “Tom vs Time”? It’s not a game that Tom’s going to win.
The series does make a show of addressing the issue: What happens when the end of “forever” starts to come into sight? But despite Brady fretting about diminishing muscle-response times and fine-tuning his diet and training, “Tom vs Time” doesn’t fear mortality so much as embrace it, in the very normality of this man (who is,admittedly, handsome, successful, lucky, and insanely rich). The Tom Brady persona I came away with isn’t someone pushing futilely against the rush of time’s slipstream but moving down the field as gracefully and as gratefully as he can.
Watch episode 4
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.