By Andrew Wroblewski
The story of Michael “Mikey” Brannigan has been told time and time again.
A February 2015 feature athlete for Sports Illustrated; the centerpiece of a 2014 NBC “Nightly News” segment; and the talking point of countless articles highlighting the ever-growing list of his county, state and national running accomplishments, which he’s accrued during his time at Northport High School – the senior has seemingly made “Brannigan” a household name in the world of track and field.
On Sunday, however, Brannigan’s story came to life on the silver screen for the very first time in the form of “The Silent Portrait of Michael Brannigan,” a documentary filmed by fellow Northport senior Devon Narine-Singh.
Before a mostly crowded theater at the Huntington Cinema Arts Centre, Narine-Singh offered a first-of-its-kind, in-depth, complex, emotional and inspiring look at the life of Brannigan: one of America’s best young long-distance runners who also happens to have autism.
“Being in the Northport community, everyone knows Mikey; everyone knows his story,” Narine-Singh, 18, said. “But there’s a very simple way to tell the story… and, in my opinion, that’s not an accurate portrayal because a story is much more complicated.”
Narine-Singh believes that some have let Brannigan’s disability cloud the more complicated tale. Yes, Brannigan has autism and was diagnosed with the intellectual disability prior to his second birthday, but that’s not the focal point, nor the stopping point here.
“To people that don’t know Mikey very well, [the story] would seem to be about an autistic runner,” Brannigan’s mother, Edie, says during one of the film’s interviews. “But anyone that knows him… understands that he’s a great runner – who has autism.”
Running since the age of 7, Brannigan lowered his time on the one mile run to under five minutes as a seventh-grader. A grade later, Brannigan tried out for Northport’s varsity cross-country team. He made it.
Along his winding path of success, Brannigan received All-American honors from USA Track and Field and the U.S. Olympic Committee during his junior year in 2014 – the same year he became a national champion in the 3,200-meter run.
Just this past weekend, Brannigan took to the track at St. Anthony’s High School during the annual invitational meet and won the 800-meter run with a time of 1:51.87 – a meet record. He accomplished that while a crew filming another documentary – ESPN’s hour-long newsmagazine show, “E:60” – followed his every move.
“That’s how Mikey is on a daily basis, it’s not so much his talent, but his work ethic,” Brannigan’s Northport High School coach, Jason Strom, says during another of the film’s interviews. “He wants to be first in everything; he only knows that one speed... He works to be the best every day.”
With this success came the attention and, simultaneously, the film’s major obstacle.
Brannigan doesn’t need the media spotlight; as his father, Kevin, says during the film, in some ways, it even hinders him. The young runner thrives on having a routine and that routine can be easily disrupted.
Similarly, Narine-Singh’s original focus of the film became disrupted during filming.
The filmmaker originally intended to tell the story partly through Brannigan’s eyes, but the runner became uncomfortable during filming and, as a result, opted to have his screen time limited. With that in mind, Narine-Singh began to explore the story through the eyes of Brannigan’s parents and his brothers, Thomas and Patrick.
With this, Narine-Singh evokes real emotion as he’s able to reveal stories, thoughts and feelings not previously shown to the public.
Edie discusses the challenges of caring for her autistic son around the house. Kevin battles with the idea that National Collegiate Athletic Association academic standards could prevent his son from running for a Division I college. Patrick talks about the frustrations of yearning for a younger brother that he could relate to on a social level. Thomas battles to step out of the shadow that his older brother has cast before him.
These complex, emotional issues and talking points are explored through “fly-on-the-wall” camerawork that make Brannigan’s story more than just what immediately meets the eye; they’re what make it real.
“I’m very grateful that the Brannigans allowed me to tell their story and that they were so candid and honest with me,” Narine-Singh said after the film’s conclusion. “I think that’s really what makes the film.”
At the end of the day, though, with all stones unturned, the Brannigan family wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Everything is exactly the way it’s supposed to be whether I understand it… or not,” Edie says. “Mikey and autism has enhanced our lives, that’s how I see it today – that’s also for Mikey’s life and for his siblings’ lives. Everyone that Mikey touches… they come away inspired. I don’t walk around inspiring people. Mike does, and what a gift that is.”