As entertaining and compelling as sports documentaries can be, these sorts of films can fall into a familiar format, regardless of the subject or story being followed. However, Gleason, the new documentary about former NFL player Steve Gleason and his battle with ALS doesn’t follow a conventional narrative. Neither the subject himself, nor what’s happened to him during the past five years, allows for that.
Many are surely familiar with Gleason’s story, whether it’s from his role in perhaps the most iconic moment in New Orleans Saints franchise history, his public battle with ALS and subsequent video journal for his son, or his efforts to raise money for technology and research to help fellow patients suffering from the disease.
But this film, directed by Clay Tweel (Finders Keepers), pushes much further than a football documentary or a news report would be expected to. Gleason is about much more than a former NFL football player and his struggles with a horrible, debilitating disease. It’s even about more than realizing what a person is capable of in the face of such an insurmountable development, and the inspiration such a person can provide to others who find themselves in similar circumstances.
What makes Gleason so utterly compelling — and extremely tough to watch at times — is that Steve Gleason and his wife, Michel Varisco, are willing to show the physical and mental toll that such a life-changing event can wreak upon a family, friends and associates. Using a prominent position to help and inspire is indeed admirable, but it’s hardly easy and can force some very difficult choices to be made.
Above all, Gleason’s ordeal is a test. It’s a test of his own capabilities to deal with the complete breakdown of his body and physical abilities. Obviously, developing this devastating neurological disorder which eventually results in the degeneration of voluntary muscle control is easy for no one unfortunate enough to be confronted with such a condition.
But is it even more difficult for someone whose livelihood was largely defined by his physical and athletic gifts? Gleason makes it clear that being a football player did not define him as a person, but this is a question that the documentary thankfully doesn’t even attempt to explore. ALS is absolutely terrible for anyone who suffers from it, regardless of vocation, class or physical capability. If anyone didn’t realize that before, there are several moments in this documentary which will make it heartbreakingly clear.
Yet the test extends far beyond diminished physical capabilities and the mental anguish from dealing with the disease and trying to accept it on some level. Perhaps the greatest cruelty of ALS is that those who suffer from it experience no loss in brain function. They are entirely aware of what’s happening and their body’s slowly increasing inability to no longer perform even the simplest of tasks.
Maybe it’s a brave face Gleason puts on for the cameras at first, but he initially seems surprisingly all right with what’s happening to him. Sure, the tragedy and bitter irony of finding out his wife is pregnant four months after he was diagnosed with ALS is a devastating blow. But Gleason never comes off as someone who feels sorry for himself. Perhaps that’s the football player in him. You see the problem and confront it head-on. It’s pretty much how he played the game, and what got him to the NFL as an undersized linebacker out of Washington State.
Despite what he’s going through — and the very real possibility that he either won’t be capable of being much of a father to his son or won’t be around by the time he’s old enough to begin having conversations with and having memories of him — Gleason still has the opportunity to provide something to his son that his own father never did, to have a better and stronger relationship, to offer advice and counsel, to be there for him in one form or another.
If you’re at all familiar with Gleason’s story after he retired from the NFL, you know that after he was diagnosed with ALS, he decided to keep a video blog and record on-camera journals for his son. It was his way of allowing his then-unborn child to get to know his father. Unfortunately, that story would also include Gleason’s physical deterioration, but he would know why his father couldn’t speak and play with him like other fathers did with their sons. He could also see how difficult life could become as his parents learned how to deal with ALS and all of the adversity that comes with it. Above all, however, Gleason’s son would know that his father loved him, that he tried to pass along what he learned and what he thought was important for him to know.
During the film, it becomes painfully apparent why this is so important to Gleason. It’s not just a matter of having the technology available to record those video journals. Gleason’s relationship with his own father was a difficult one. He was a father that feels familiar to his era, one who didn’t communicate well (or didn’t know how) and whose idea of parenting was to push his children harder. Gleason’s parents divorced when he was just a kid and it’s clear that he doesn’t want his son to deal with anything like that.
Being confronted with his own mortality compels Gleason to ask tough questions and have hard conversations with a man who’s not used to expressing his feelings, and it makes for some of the toughest parts of the film to watch. The differences between the two men is never more apparent than in their respective approaches to faith. Having lived with regret and seemingly trying to become a better person, Gleason’s father has become a religious man and that forms the basis of how he tries to help his son cope. (To be fair, perhaps he was always religious; the movie doesn’t spell that out.) Arguably the most difficult part of the film is when Gleason’s father takes him to a faith healer. Maybe Gleason goes along with it, trying to run after hands have been laid upon him, because he figures it’s worth a shot. Or perhaps he wants to show his father than implying he needs stronger faith isn’t the answer.
Gleason’s wife, Michel, is terrified and angry to watch her husband humiliate himself in front of a large group. Above all, she’s enraged at her father-in-law, likely because she knows how Gleason is always trying to please his father on some level and he’s willing to let his son put himself through an embarrassing, painful spectacle because of that. Michel might be the most compelling figure of the story, the former wild child who finds the man who can finally meet her on her level. Her approach to marriage and motherhood is unconventional, and you get the impression that she’s ready to take on whatever obstacles life presents as long as she can do it on her terms. Of course, her husband’s diagnosis and deterioration is something that no one for which no one could possibly be prepared.
It would be easy to portray Michel as the heroic figure who stands by her man as a loving wife and loyal caretaker in light of her husband’s condition, but neither she nor this film would want any part of that narrative. Michel’s fierce outlook on life might help Gleason cope more easily. She’s certainly the exact sort of partner he needs as he tries to find purpose in what’s happened to him and refuses to act like a victim of horribly cruel fate. But the documentary shows that it’s anything but easy for her, especially once she and Gleason have their son, named Rivers. Taking care of a baby is difficult enough. But taking care of Rivers and Gleason, who obviously needs around-the-clock care and attention, is nearly impossible.
This is what sets Gleason apart from other sports documentaries. (And maybe it really shouldn’t be referred to as such.) It doesn’t go for the easy storyline or inspirational message. As you see Gleason deal with his disease, the toll it takes on himself and his family, and the challenges his wife faces — sometimes becoming a person she almost doesn’t recognize because of what she’s going through — it’s apparent why Tweel, producer Seth Gordon (The King of Kong) and former teammate Scott Fujita thought this was a story that needed to be told, that needed to be shared with people. It’s something that will stay with you long after you’re done watching.