Gleason, the newly-released documentary that tells the story of former NFL player (and New Orleans Saints legend) Steve Gleason's battle with ALS, is a film filled with insightful and arresting moments. For me, however, none shone more brightly than the moment when Steve looks into the camera and tells his yet-unborn son (and us, the audience) that the journey he is about to undertake is "not going to be easy, but it's going to be awesome."
Gleason, who spent a number of successful seasons in the NFL as a "gunner," is probably most famous for his city-transporting punt block during the Saints return to the Superdome, post-Katrina. Or at least that was his claim to fame before being diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) several years after his retirement. As one might expect, the diagnosis was a tough one for Gleason and his fairly-new wife, Michel -- the two had married a few years after Gleason's departure from the NFL -- but it was rendered even more challenging by the news that Michel was expecting. Now, Steve and Michel were faced not only with the daunting task of battling a debilitating disease, but of coming to terms with the fact that their son would never experience his vibrant, energetic, fun-loving father as he was before the ravages of ALS.
In an effort to convey some sense of himself to his unborn son, Steve begins a video diary project, recording short clips where he talks to the camera (and to his son) about an endless array of topics, trying to cram a lifetime of conversation into a few months; trying to leave behind as much as he can before his ability to communicate is too greatly impaired. And it is these videos that serve as the backbone (and the emotional center) of documentarian Clay Tweel's work. Adding to them with "fly-on-the-wall" moments captured from countless hours of footage, Tweel weaves an inspiring yet unvarnished portrait of the family's struggles with an unrelenting disease, and of the extraordinary grace and courage they bring to that battle.
Unsurprisingly, the relationships forged between fathers and sons are hugely important in this film. But for me, it's not the relationship between Steve and his (now-born) son, Rivers, that feels most important and most revelatory; it's the one between Steve and his own father, Mike. Mike (we learn from the film) has been a difficult and inflexible presence in Steve's life for years, shaping his views on family and faith as clearly by Steve's efforts to avoid and escape his father's mistakes as by anything he could have said or taught. Some of the film's most cringe-inducing moments are the result of Mike's almost-impossibly-insensitive responses to Steve's illness: his misguided efforts to explain his son's ALS as the consequences of his own failings; his confusion as to what ALS actually is and how it manifests itself, which makes him seem callously-indifferent to his son's suffering; and the brutal scene where he convinces Steve that a local faith-healer will cure him of his sickness, only to have his hopes dashed in the most painful and public of ways; the confrontation where Steve confronts Mike and yells (as clearly as his ALS-sapped voice will allow): "Stop trying to understand with your mind the relationship between my soul and God!"
Yet one of the film's most touching moments revolves around Mike, as well, when he presses the weakening body of his son to his chest and admits that he's confused and terrified and devastated at the thought of losing him. It is a sentiment shared by many through the film, but hearing it from Mike is a wonderful redemption, and a reminder of Steve's wise quote about ease and awesomeness.
The whole film is just such a reminder, filled with amazingly powerful and wrenching moments, and amazingly beautiful ones. And with moments that are both at the same time. Because suffering as completely and as destructively as Steve does is (and will never be) easy, but the sacrifices and the love of his friends and family and the power of Steve's will in the face of such adversity are indeed "awesome" to behold.
It is a film that does, in fact, fulfill the claims of "brutal honesty" so readily thrown about by so many films, yet achieved by so few. And that brutality hits the viewer as hard as Steve did during his football days; perhaps even harder. As I watched Steve weep into the camera as he revealed to Rivers that his greatest torment was his impending inability to speak -- as he admitted that he of the relentlessly optimistic outlook and tireless energy was finally without hope -- I felt like I had been gutted. I was emotionally spent. Did we really need to see that much honesty?
Yet the film is powerful and believable and incredibly human precisely because of that honesty, and thewillingness to be so uncompromisingly seen in the midst of all this suffering is Steve's greatest gift to his audience. No one is taking pains to seem a saint before the camera, least of all Gleason himself. But no one is defeated in the face of this unstoppable force, either; no matter how tired and overwhelmed and despairing they may seem at their lowest of times, Team Gleason refuses to give up. Steve "wants to help people live a life that's enriching and extraordinary" despite their diagnosis. And there is no one readier or more qualified to give a shining example of such a life as he.
The film's open-ended-ness was stunning to me. These sorts of documentaries almost always have something about a nearly-miraculous cure, or a little "Steve passed away in March, 2016" crawl as the curtain falls; a moment that allows us to rejoice (or grieve) over the life we've just watched, and move forward with our own lives with closure.
We don't get that closure here; not really. But that's kind of the point, isn't it?
An unflinching portrait of retired NFL player Steve Gleason and his battle with ALS. The former New Orleans Saint thrilled fans with a crucial blocked punt during the team's first game back at the Superdome following Hurricane Katrina, but his career was cut tragically short when he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis at the age of 34. Refusing to give in to fear, Gleason took it upon himself to live a life of inspiration for his wife and newborn son.