The word “hero” gets thrown around a lot, and it’s a title that Steve Gleason first earned during the first football game back in the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina. The New Orleans Saints safety blocked a punt and became a symbol of renewed hope for the broken city, and effectively cemented his status as a New Orleans sports hero. But as we see in the documentary “Gleason,” it’s the way he’s tackled what’s come after that establishes his place in history.
In 2011, three years after his retirement from the NFL, Steve was diagnosed with ALS, aka Lou Gehrig’s disease. Six weeks later, he and his wife Michel discovered she was pregnant with their first child, and Steve began making videos, hoping to pass on his own life lessons, beliefs, personality and sense of self before the disease robbed him of his ability to do so. These videos are the source of inspiration for “Gleason,” directed by Clay Tweel, which blends the video diaries and documentary footage into a remarkable, heartrending portrait that showcases the triumph of the human spirit at its most raw.
Steve isn’t alone in this journey, and Michel emerges as a star, an uncensored, free-spirited woman who matches her husband’s lust for life, as carefree newlyweds and through the toughest moments of his illness. The family is incredibly open with Tweel, allowing him to capture the most intimate of moments, from the embarrassing to the heartbreaking.
The diagnosis and physical deterioration inspire a tremendous amount of soul-searching in Steve, who confronts his own mortality while learning to adapt to his lessening abilities. He struggles with his father, a well-meaning, if goofy man, who found God through a 12-step program. Steve’s faith is uniquely personal, and the film captures some remarkable moments as the men grapple with each other about what might “save” him.
“Gleason” charts Steve’s physical evolution, as well as his new purpose in life as an activist and philanthropist. He gains a new voice, as his Team Gleason foundation helps ALS patients improve their quality of life with gear and technology, as well as memorable once-in-a-lifetime experiences. The Steve Gleason Act is even written into law to ensure that ALS patients are able to receive the necessary equipment and devices they need through Medicare.
A few years ago, the viral Ice Bucket Challenge brought awareness and fundraising to ALS, but “Gleason” offers up a true window into the everyday realities of the disease. With this intimately honest perspective on ALS, it makes all those ice buckets worth it – especially since those funds helped scientists zero in on the gene that causes the disease.
Activism aside, “Gleason” is profoundly personal, telling the story of just one family living through extraordinary circumstances. It might be different, but Steve is the same person – a loving dad to his son Rivers; a husband who cries, laughs and faces every challenge with his wife.
It’s ultimately a story about fathers and sons. Steve’s goal of passing on the best parts of himself is what every father tries to do. Though the stakes might seem higher than most, it’s through this challenge that his son experiences the best parts of his dad – his grace, humor, spirit and dedication to helping others that is brought to the fore while taking on this disease.
Cast: Steve Gleason, Michel Varisco-Gleason, Mike Gleason, Rivers Gleason, Blair Casey
Director: Clay Tweel
Length: 1 hour 50 minutes
Rated: R for language