The best preparation for watching Gleason is to disabuse yourself of its inspirational marketing. This is true even if you don’t care for football as sport or entertainment, or if you have miraculously found a way to insulate yourself from absorbing football scuttlebutt via pop culture osmosis. You might think about Wiki-researching the film’s star, Steve Gleason, the former New Orleans Saints defensive back who wrote himself into legend in 2006 with a single blocked punt, but why bother? The film does an exemplary job familiarizing the uninitiated with Gleason’s career accomplishments and personality within its first 20 minutes before shifting toward 2011, the year he was diagnosed with ALS.
Gird yourself for an emotional shellacking, for all the good that’ll do. It would be wrong to say that Gleason isn’t, in its own way, inspiring, or celebratory, or encouraging, or any number of positive adjectives that convey “triumph.” As the film moves forward, moment by moment, through Gleason’s struggles with ALS, there are heartening, tender and on occasion very funny beats that make Gleason, his wife, Michel Varisco, their friends, their family and the production crew look equally as relentless as his condition. For every push the disease makes in ravaging Gleason’s body, they push back. It helps that Gleason finds purpose by recording video diaries for his and Michel’s unborn son, his way of sharing as much of himself with the child as possible while he’s physically able to.
But when you commit to having your life with ALS captured on camera, you commit to being seen at your lowest points, and at points lower than that. Gleason never shies away from reality, and that’s a big component of what makes it great. It’s an even bigger component of what makes the experience of watching the movie so soul-shattering, and by extension is the precise reason why walking into the theater with the phrase “inspirational sports doc” in your head will set you up for a sucker punch. Primarily, Gleason is not an inspiring film. It is a harrowing one. It is a two-hour chronicle of how terminal illness consumes its victims and overwhelms their loved ones, a portrait of what it is like to be helpless, in visceral terms, to your own mortality, and what it is like to watch the person you care about most in the entire world die slowly while you can only stand and watch.
Gleason has its heroes, of course, and they perform what can only be considered heroic feats under the film’s circumstances: The birth of both the Gleason Initiative Foundation and the Steve Gleason Act are notable hallmarks, to say nothing of what Steve’s custodians do simply to get him through the day. Steve himself is a force of astounding vitality, while Michel gives all of herself to support him and, eventually, raise their baby boy, Rivers, whose emergence 40 minutes into the film is like watching a match light up darkness. Michel does the lion’s share of the work in the foreground; she shaves Steve’s face, clips his toenails, feeds him with one hand and Rivers with the other, assists in administering enemas (though not necessarily in that order). Her responsibilities are endless, and she shoulders them with determination.
She also suffers tremendously. In one scene, Steve dozes in a chair while Michel watches their wedding video as she cradles Rivers. The camera cuts between Steve, Michel and the television set before ending on a close-up shot of a tear trickling down her cheek. It’s her unique, personal Hell, a contrast between the man she married as he was and the man she married as he is. Gleason never begrudges Michel her grief, though, or judges her for distancing herself from Steve over the film’s duration. The film, like her, is honest, not just in its depiction of Steve and of ALS, but also the ways in which we react to bereavement and are changed by tragedy. Steve’s father, Mike, takes Steve to a faith healer in a sequence that even spiritually-minded viewers are likely to interpret as outrageous. Later on, Steve, fed up with his dad’s habit of impressing his religious beliefs on him, reprimands Mike, proclaiming, with tremendous effort, that his soul will be saved.
Mike immediately breaks down. You probably will, too. Playing audience to your child’s gradual deterioration and inevitable death is a specific kind of trauma, one that Gleason invites us to feel for ourselves through its steadfast empathy for its subjects. You’ll walk away from the film with optimism in mind, and that’s very much by design. Gleason ends on higher notes, the better to send us out of the theater convinced we have seen something wholly uplifting. The film could have been that. In another’s hands, it likely would have been. Instead, Gleason has been crafted in service to circumspection. (Whom by is its own puzzle. Sean Pamphilon was the film’s initiating director before his ousting in 2012 for his role in the Bountygate scandal, but director credit goes to his successor, Clay Tweel, who pulled double duty as co-editor.)
You cannot focus on the good in Steve’s life without also giving the bad due consideration. For every victory, there is a setback, every instance of joy, an instance of despair, every “Who dat?” chant, a scene of wrenching intimacy between Michel and Steve that we shouldn’t be seeing. That we’re seeing it at all is a rare, sobering gift. Keep that in mind when you settle into your seat.
Director: Clay Tweel
Writer: Clay Tweel
Release Date: July 29, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65 percent craft beer.