Clay Tweel’s Sundance award-winner Gleason is an exemplary act of emotional manipulation, so take that as you will. But Gleason is a documentary that will certainly affect its viewers, whether positively or negatively. Is Gleason an approximate kind of 30 for 30 with simple emotional elicitations? Or is it a fearless portrait of crisis overcome in one extraordinary athlete’s life? Perhaps it’s both. Whatever the case, this is the true-life story of Steve Gleason, and how he reacted when life hit him with a hell of a disease.
A former New Orleans Saints special teams player, Gleason has a sublime amiability. Think Bhodi from Point Break: surfer spiritual, and totally attuned to nature and karma. It almost comes as a surprise that this guy was a legendary athlete in the aughts. He retired in 2008, and left New Orleans as a post-Katrina icon. His famous blocked punt from 2006 became a kind of metaphor for the city getting knocked down, only to come back stronger.
In 2011, Gleason was diagnosed with ALS. Lou Gehrig’s. Imagine being a top-shape athlete, someone known for their physical prowess, and learning that your entire body is going to be assaulted by muscle spasms, the loss of most motor skills, and an eventual and inevitable confinement for your personal safety. The cosmic irony is too cruel.
But Gleason portrays the former athlete as undeterred, stomas and all. Gleason gives heaps of testimonials, and shares seemingly every last detail over the course of his advancing illness. The documentary shows Steve, a world-class athlete, struggling to dog-paddle across a stream. We witness the birth (with close overhead shots) of Gleason’s son Rivers. Steve even works to reconcile with his fundamentalist father. We see the modern marvels of computer voice software a la Stephen Hawking’s, and the agonies of stem cell therapy. There are upsetting moments of weakness as Gleason is shown incapable of taking care of himself when it comes to basic daily tasks, and even harder-fought moments of triumph found in Gleason’s generosity, as he takes fields to champion ALS awareness. Neither Gleason nor Gleason shy away from the struggle.
The documentary crew is granted so much exposure that there’s even footage inside of Gleason’s Team Gleason charity board meetings. The access seems unprecedented, if not unbelievably dense and up-close. The prime arc is his illness, and frankly, the man accomplishes a ton when pressed with a term limit on his lifespan. Gleason’s a fantastic subject in his own unbelievable story.
Formally, Gleason is very much an inspirational and difficult true sports tale. Fear not, Steve Gleason is still very much alive and an advocate for ALS issues, so it doesn’t quite go down that sports movie line in driving for emotion. But there’s something skeptically melodramatic about the doc at times; it’s a strange negotiation of the nature of what’s “genuine” in a documentary.
For example, take a scene where Gleason and his wife Michel Varisco are home, having a quiet moment. Their son was born just hours earlier. It’s one of those tender, silent, austere moments you’ve seen in dramas or sports movies. Pure contemplation. Steve sits immobile, but is still very much all-American handsome from the confines of his chair, and he’s shot up close from his right. Meanwhile, Michel is on a couch adjacent to Steve, figuring out the feeding of their newborn. Steve’s already having difficulty with muscle control, and is likely afraid to try and hold Rivers.
In this moment, the two are watching their wedding video (complete with a house band audibly playing Van Morrison for a first dance). This living room scene cuts between close-ups of the TV, and separate shots of the two, letting out gently streaming (often single) tears, suggesting fears and hopes for their futures. The moment is perfectly crafted. Tortuous even. And yet there’s a gnawing sense of artifice. Here’s a bit of elegantly captured domestic solitude, quiet strife, and subsequent nirvana, almost like something out of a Sundance indie.
This is a documentary, though. And the way the scene plays out, you can hug it, or harangue it. It’s almost too perfect, and a lot of Gleason plays this way. The access is extreme, and the coverage likely allows for Gleason’s montages and celebrity cameos and all the accoutrement that distract from Gleason’s more sobering realities. Maybe it’s easy to lambast Gleason’s fancier or showier tendencies as forced melodrama at times. But those criticisms start to fade the second Gleason is willingly shown competing with his own mouth, just to get single-syllable words out, because of his disease.
Here’s a documentary with plenty of courage in its convictions, and a teachable exercise about modern health problems. Gleason’s end game is making audiences damned glad to have met Steve Gleason, and prepared to hear his story of overcoming physical adversity and how he’s become a champion off the field.