It takes all of one minute for Gleason to begin eliciting waterworks, and they rarely let up for the remainder of its 111 minutes. Absolutely heartbreaking in its intimate depiction of individual and familial adversity, J. Clay Tweel’s documentary concerns Steve Gleason, a former safety for the New Orleans Saints who, in 2011 at the age of 34, was diagnosed with ALS – news that came merely six weeks before he and his wife, Michel Varisco, found out that they were expecting their first child. That impending bundle of joy is the focus of the film’s opening scene, a video diary entry made by Gleason to his unborn son (in front of his crib) in which he confesses “My number one focus and purpose is to share with you who I am, and to give you as much of myself as I possibly can while I can. And I’m excited.” As with so much of what ensues, it’s a moment that recalls 1993’s similar (albeit fictional) Michael Keaton-Nicole Kidman tearjerker My Life, except magnified by a factor of a thousand.
Director Tweel spends only a few early minutes recapping Gleason’s athletic career, which began in Spokane, Washington and took him to New Orleans, site of his crowning professional highlight on Monday, September 25, 2006: a blocked punt to start the Saints’ first game back in the Superdome post-Hurricane Katrina, which came to symbolize the resiliency of the bruised and battered city. That play made Gleason a local hero beloved by all Saints fans (including yours truly, a lifelong “Who Dat” die-hard). Thus, the revelation that, three years after hanging up his cleats, he’d been struck by “Lou Gehrig’s Disease” – a neurodegenerative disorder that destroys one’s body but leaves the mind untouched – was a particularly tough blow to a community that had so joyously embraced him.
It was, of course, a far greater blow to his wife Michel, a feisty free spirit who found in Gleason a kindred adventurous, globe-trotting partner. Described as a “kamikaze” on the field, Gleason proceeds to confirm that the once-famous athlete was an equally determined warrior off it as well. Though crushed by this turn of events (and the terminal prognosis that comes along with it), Gleason refuses to give up, dedicating himself to imparting everything he knows, has experienced, and feels in videos for his son. Simultaneously he begins travelling while his body still allows it (most notably, to Alaska with Michel on a two-week trek) and, later, establishes the non-profit Team Gleason foundation to help others with ALS acquire the technology they need to continue living (be it wheelchairs, or speech-enabling computer devices) and, more importantly, to achieve their own make-a-wish dreams.
It is, in short, a raw, unvarnished portrait of an indomitable spirit rising to the occasion to provide hope for those, like him, who have been struck low by disease. “I believe my future is bigger than my past, and so that’s inspiring. That’s uplifting,” Gleason says in a confessional recording. His refusal to simply succumb to despair and death is nothing short of rousing, especially in light of the fact that, for so much of its runtime, Tweel’s documentary is an almost unbearable cavalcade of shattering incidents and images, all of which conspire to make watching it an exercise in incessant bawling.
There’s Gleason, beginning to suffer from serious motor-skill issues, struggling to hold onto his son Rivers as he first exits the womb. There’s the piercing snapshot of him and Rivers side-by-side in their kitchen, the man in a wheelchair and the infant boy in a booster seat. There’s Gleason visiting a faith healer at the urging of his fundamentalist father Mike, and – in an effort to validate his dad’s faith, and to perhaps find it in himself as well – trying to run in front of an audience, only to pitifully fall on his face. There’s Gleason letting Michel know how important she is to him by repeatedly stating “You’re it.” There’s Michel sobbing at the sight of her once-strapping husband walking with a wobbly gait, and later acting remotely as Gleason – now speaking through the sort of eye-operated computer interface employed by Stephen Hawking – tries to bridge the growing emotional chasm between them through halting dialogue. And there’s Gleason receiving a failed enema from his wife and, shortly thereafter, a successful one from a nurse, all while maintaining enough sense of humor to ask her “Judy – am I the hottest guy you’ve ever ass-fingered?”
Forced to cope with both a growing toddler as well as a deteriorating husband in need of non-stop care – who’s both furious and despondent over his condition, and apologetic about what he’s putting her through – Michel becomes a figure of stirring dedication, loyalty and strength. Describing her screwy reality, in which strangers congratulate her for Gleason’s heroic ALS work, thereby ignoring the far more fundamental calamity of their lives, Michel aptly says, “This whole thing is a huge mind-fuck.” Gleason himself clearly feels likewise, as his video entries (and Tweel’s up-close-and-personal verité footage) reveal a man doing his best to balance an immense pile-up of challenges – staying positive for himself and his clan; living up to others’ lofty expectations for him; and mending fences with his own demanding father, whom he fears doesn’t believe he’ll ultimately be saved by Christ – that are complicated by his rapid physical decline.
Mostly, though, Gleason is the story of a thirtysomething man fighting, tooth and nail, to leave a lasting paternal legacy for his son. Virtually everyone Gleason meets during the course of his hardship – which remains ongoing, despite Tweel’s material ending in 2015 – is bowled over by his courage, tenacity, and desire to forge a father-child bond; even Eddie Vedder can’t help but get misty-eyed while being interviewed by the Pearl Jam-adoring Gleason. To hear young Rivers, sitting atop his wheelchair-bound father, say “I love you, Dad” is emblematic of the many instances throughout Gleason when the pain, suffering and all-around unfairness of Gleason’s fate is married to a moving sense of his successful efforts to transcend his misfortune and touch another’s heart. Like the rest of the film, it’s a quiet moment of both tragedy and triumph that epitomizes his life – and helps make Gleason one of the most powerful, poignant documentaries of the past decade.