To football fans, Steve Gleason is likely a familiar name. The former NFL player came to national fame for his bruising, all-out, and aggressive on-field nature and particularly for one spectacular play in 2006. As a safety for the New Orleans Saints, Gleason was a part of the post-Katrina team that helped buoy the spirits of a whole city. And, during their first game back in the Superdome (after it was made infamous by FEMA’s inability to get water to the thousands of people stranded inside) Gleason blocked a punt by the Atlanta Falcons that was recovered for a Saints’ touchdown. For Saints fans it was a rebirth. That single play became Gleason’s defining moment; The Punt became synonymous with his name.
But things changed for Steve not long after he retired from football. “Gleason,” the new, deeply personal doc filmed over the course of several years, spends a few fleeting minutes covering Gleason’s successful career, but doesn’t really get going until the former pro athlete is diagnosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The film that follows is, by turns, wrenching, emotional, hilarious, and uplifting; it refuses to pull any punches, remaining throughout unflinching in the face of the hardships that Gleason has continued to battle. Which is exactly what makes “Gleason” a success: it’s a shockingly intimate work that documents the highs and lows of life with ALS, the relationships of fathers and sons, and what it means to be a hero.
Steve’s story is told through several methods: as is customary to the form, there are interviews with those closest to him (his wife Michel, his father), then there is footage professionally shot in the months and years following his initial diagnosis by director J. Clay Tweel, among others, and then there is the personal footage. From the beginning of the film, it is clear that Steve is a man interested in documenting his life, before and after his retirement, he always seems to have a camera focused on something. It’s only natural that he would attempt to compile all the life lessons he knows into a comprehensive video diary for his unborn son, under the assumption that he, Steve, might not be around very long.
As Steve and Michel prepare for the arrival of their son, Rivers, Steve’s condition gets progressively worse. ALS is a horribly destructive disease, and watching Steve slowly lose his fine motor skills, his ability to walk, his ability to speak, his ability to do anything on his own, is, to say the least, heartbreaking. But watching this all happen as the counter to Michel’s pregnancy and the eventual birth and growth of their son, offers a new lens — there is something deeply human in Steve’s fight to be an active part of his son’s life, a strength that comes from beyond the body, and an element of the film that allows it to rise above its genre brethren.
Such intimacy in a documentary has the ability to foil a lesser film. Certainly, “Gleason” has its weaknesses, but in its outright refusal to paint Steve as the one-dimensional hero he easily could have been — the all-American football star afflicted with a life-changing disease who starts a successful charity and becomes the face of ALS — the doc becomes deeper all together, posing challenging questions of faith, identity, marriage, and fatherhood — the very same questions Steven himself is working to answer.
Throughout it all, “Gleason” stays grounded by returning to one thing: family, whether it’s the one you build or the one you’re born to. In many ways ALS and all that comes with it (in Steve’s case becoming the face of a charity and an entire movement) attempts to define Steve’s life, but always, he returns home to Michel and Rivers and faces many of the same challenges all families face. And it doesn’t hurt that Steve, even before he is diagnosed, is something of a philosopher, a man hungry to plumb the truths of life, as interested in what goes around him as what goes on within.
Oftentimes, with movies like “Gleason,” it’s hard to separate the content with the quality; Steve’s story, and our access to it, is unprecedented. He and Michel — who in many ways becomes the true hero of the film — are testaments to strength and endurance in the name of love. But, from a purely objective standpoint, the film’s pacing sags at times, and its energy deflates, as is so often the case in trying to turn a chronological story into a cohesive narrative.
But above all, Steve’s spirit soars. “Fundraisers and all this stuff — and really none of that’s what’s important — what’s important is this right here, that’s all that matters, is me passing myself to you,” Steve says in a video to his then-unborn son. “Even if I’m not present physically, you’ll have this, and I feel so much better when I just sit down and share myself with you, because that’s what dad’s do, they pass stuff on, the best of themselves to their kids.” And that’s just what Steve has done for all of us: show the best of himself, even at life’s very worst. [B+]