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Reviewed by:
  • Gleason dir. by Clay Tweel
  • Richard Ian Kimball
Gleason ( 2016). Dir. Clay Tweel. Prod. Dear Rivers Production and IMG Films. 111 mins.

Gleason is not for the faint of heart. The prize-winning documentary chronicles the life of former National Football League player Steve Gleason in the years following his diagnosis with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) at the age of thirty-four. At the time of his 2011 diagnosis, Gleason and his wife, Michel Rae Varisco, learn that she is pregnant with their first child. The film began as a video journal in which Steve could tell stories and share life lessons while he was still able to speak. The film is stark and natural and pulls no punches in its depiction of Gleason's failing health and the toll that it takes on his body and mind. But the film is much more than the story of his physical descent. Instead, it centers on Gleason's efforts to live a complete life while working to maintain relationships with friends and loved ones. Questions about fatherhood, the purpose of life, and the limits of technology loom as large as Gleason's courageous battle with the deadly disease. This film is much more than a sports documentary; it is a film that captures the human dramas of love, loss, and carrying on in the face of tremendous odds.

Steve Gleason spent most of his eight seasons in the NFL as a special teams player for the New Orleans Saints. In September 2006, Gleason was immortalized for his role in the most memorable play in Saints' history. In the first game played at the New Orleans Superdome since Hurricane Katrina had closed the facility nearly two years earlier, Gleason blocked a punt, which was then recovered by a teammate for a touchdown. The play punctuated the return of the team to New Orleans and turned Gleason into a local hero.

Much of the film necessarily depicts Gleason's illness. Scenes showing the gradual loss of his physical skills, and eventually the simplest bodily functions, are haunting. The heart of the film, however, concentrates on Steve's family and how the ravages of ALS affect his relationships with his wife, father, and son Rivers. In many ways, the film's central character is Gleason's free-spirited wife Michel, who becomes Steve's primary caregiver and sacrifices much of her personality in the process. Struggling to provide full-time care to her husband and their newborn son pushes Michel to physical exhaustion and existential confusion. Watching this wrenching process reveals the reach of Steve's disease. Describing her complex situation, Michel says, "I have never wanted to be a saint. I've never been a saint before Steve. I'm never going to be a saint. I don't want to be, like, a devil or a dick face, but I don't want to be a saint, either. I just want to be a real person." The film portrays the pain, love, loneliness, and heartache of a committed spouse, mother, and full-time caregiver.

The film had its genesis in Gleason's desire to give his son a trove of video memories, and the theme of fatherhood resonates throughout the documentary. Steve's relationship with his father Mike becomes a key aspect of the film. On the heels of his diagnosis, Steve seeks to mend the relationship while he is still able to express himself. Throughout most of the film, Steve struggles to connect in any meaningful way with Mike, a pattern that had lingered since Steve's adolescence. A difference in religious sensibilities—really, the [End Page 90] question of Steve's salvation—separates the father and son. As the film progresses, Mike slowly comes around to accept that Steve's soul is saved, because of Steve's personal beliefs and not his father's traditional faith.

Recognizing the possibility of a foreshortened life, Steve cherishes every moment with his son Rivers. He can hardly contain his glee while patting Michel's pregnant stomach. Watching Rivers grow was an unexpected blessing for Steve, and his joy is palpable, whether racing around in his wheelchair with Rivers on his lap...


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pp. 90-91
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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