Steve Gleason’s success was always unlikely: From his time as a too-small college linebacker to his NFL career as a safety with the New Orleans Saints to his second act as an ALS activist, he’s been a defying odds — and conventional wisdom — for years.
Clay Tweel’s “Gleason” documents the agony and the ecstasy of its subject’s life, and is similarly exceptional in its avoidance of the cliches so
The tear-jerking subject matter is presented in a sobering, un-sensationalized manner apropos of Gleason himself. Plainspoken but authoritative in his own way, he reacts to his ALS (aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease) diagnosis at the age of 33 with a kind of cautious optimism. (It was Gleason’s diagnosis, in fact, that spawned the entire online ice-bucket challenge that went viral last year.) His own health issues are further complicated when he learns, six weeks later, that his wife is pregnant.
Lines like “It’s not gonna crush my life, even if it crushes my body” and “I believe there is more in my future than in my past” would come across as platitudes when spoken by most others, but Gleason makes good on these promises. You get the sense that this couldn’t have happened to a nicer person, yes, but it also couldn’t happen to a stronger one.
Gleason endeared himself to New Orleans forever when, early in the Saints’ first post-Hurricane Katrina home game, he blocked a punt that led to a touchdown. It was the football equivalent of Mike Piazza’s post-9/11 home run that brought New York to its feet, a healing moment that made Gleason a folk hero among the Big Easy’s denizens for years to come. But you needn’t be a longtime admirer of his to feel a sinking feeling in your stomach as you watch his body deteriorate over the course of several years.
Tweel’s approach is no-frills, with much of the footage having been shot by Gleason and his wife Michel. This is wise: The story itself is so wrenching that any attempt to gussy it up would run the risk of feeling overwrought, even manipulative. The home-movie feel lends an air of intimacy that makes it even harder to bear — “The Theory of Everything” provided a dramatization of surpassing the average post-ALS life expectancy, but here truth is stronger than fiction.
It’s a slow descent, with plenty of time between the initial diagnosis and the onset of Gleason’s most visible symptoms. He fills these weeks and months with what was surely hour upon hour of video diaries, capturing both Gleason’s ruminations on the implications of his impending fatherhood and a trip he and his wife take to seize every healthy day they have together. These scenes are deeply bittersweet, with Gleason showing the kind of courage to which most could only aspire.
Whatever uplift is present in “Gleason” is extremely hard-won. Tweel in no way shies away from Gleason’s struggles; if anything, all involved appear to insist on their inclusion. Gleason is a saint on and off the field, ditto his wife, but “Gleason” isn’t a hagiography. Tweel’s warts-and-all offering doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable details of its subject’s failing body or of his wife’s waning confidence in her abilities to take care of him (to say nothing of their son) as he loses the physical ability to do either.
The result is, among other things, a portrait of the kind of love emphasized in wedding vows but often forgotten about afterward. Watch the silent rage in Michel’s eyes, for instance, as Steve’s attempt to square his semi-strained relationship with his religious father leads them to a faith healer, a wrenching experience that only exacerbates the situation.
“Gleason” is as much about fathers and sons, and husbands and wives, as it is about ALS or even Gleason himself. He addresses his thoughts on life, death, and everything in between to his unborn son in the knowledge that, by the time the boy is old enough to have a conversation with him, he’ll no longer be able to speak. It’s a treasure trove of insight that anyone would be lucky to have from their father, though it comes at a great sacrifice — a fitting metaphor for “Gleason” itself.