Movie review: Gleason
Sports movies demand a whole lot of heart, but this documentary about a former NFL’er diagnosed with ALS captures the whole body of the human experience
Starring: Steve Gleason, Michel Varisco, Blair Casey, Mike Gleason, Drew Brees, Mike McCready, Eddie Vedder
Directed by: Clay Tweel
Running time: 1 hr 50 mins
MPAA Rating: Restricted
By Katherine Monk
Some movies help us escape the existential void by distracting us for an hour or two with special effects and comic book plots. Others let us cope through drama and catharsis. But every once in a while there’s a film that stands at the cliff edge and stares straight down.
Those are the ones that leave a pit in your stomach, but they’re also the ones that make the sky that much bluer, the leaves that much greener, and life a fleeting, sweet kiss from the divine.
Gleason is one of those movies. A documentary portrait of former New Orleans Saints defensive back Steve Gleason, the film follows the pro-ball player over the course of about five years. It begins in 2010, after the former New Orleans Saints’ defensive back was diagnosed with ALS, and just after he learned his wife Michel was expecting their first child.
He wanted to make a video diary for the baby, offer little clips in his own voice about the lessons he’s learned along the way, but the intensely personal project eventually grew into something much larger.
Two friends became caregivers and started filming Steve and Michel on a daily basis, watching every strand of their relationship change with the arrival of a baby and the increasing presence of a debilitating illness.
Eventually, over 1500 hours of Steve Gleason’s life was recorded, and that’s when director Clay Tweel (Finders Keepers) came onboard.
With so much footage to work with, he had a lot of options, but he chooses just the right collection of moments to create a lasting memory, in addition to a moving homage to an undeniably righteous human being.
Gleason taps two potent spigots of emotion through form alone: sports movies, where heroes are always full of heart, and the non-fiction portrait of terminal illness, where we watch souls like us fade to black.
Alone, each genre has its inherent drawbacks stemming from too much sentiment, but blended together by Tweel’s careful measure, Gleason becomes a bubbling tonic for the spirit.
The magic ingredient is Gleason himself, the all-star who famously blocked a punt at the team’s first home game following Hurricane Katrina.
The son of divorced parents, a fan of Peal Jam and a dedicated competitor who made it to the National Football League, Gleason isn’t just handsome and athletic, he’s articulate and funny. He’s also undeniably soulful.
So is his wife, Michel. With her dark hair, athletic frame and complete lack of designer labels or plastic surgery, she’s not an obvious NFL bride. She says what she’s thinking, but as Steve’s ability to communicate atrophies, Michel’s ability to relate weakens. She starts shutting down.
We can see the spark burn out before our eyes. Overtired from too much stress and suffocating in guilt because she’s unhappy, Michel shows us the very real flipside of the hero story: Daily life is hard. The struggle is continuous, and it’s invisible to anyone who isn’t living it.
This film lives it with them both, and because we’re seeing two accessible, sympathetic people move through a cataclysmic dilemma in tandem, we’re drilling down to the very crux of the existential condition.
What does it mean to be alive? It’s the big question, but every little bit of Gleason offers a rewarding answer. A profoundly moving experience that won’t just recalibrate your own woes, it may well inspire you to love better.