Most fans will never forget former New Orleans Saints safety Steve Gleason’s famous blocked punt during the team’s first game back in the Superdome following Hurricane Katrina. You might think it’s a downer, watching a movie detailing Gleason’s deterioratation from the effects of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), a.k.a Lou Gehrig’s disease. But the last thing this stirring, indelibly moving documentary is about is self pity. Gleason, organized and edited by director Clay Tweel from four years of video diaries often shot by the sports hero himself, is a document — sometimes shocking, sometimes shockingly funny — of Steve’s life from the time of his diagnosis in 2011 when he was 34. We see everything — not just the devastating effects on Steve’s body and mind but on his marriage to the artist Michel Varisco, who learned around the same time that she was pregnant with their first child. Many of the videos are of him talking to his son, Rivers, before and after his birth, while Steve’s words are still intelligible. “I want to pass on as much of who I am as I possibly can to you.” he says.
Inspirational? You bet. Also a boon to Team Gleason, the charity built to assist those living with ALS. But the film is too bluntly honest to sugarcoat the relentless ravages of the disease. There are times when Steve can’t breathe, much less talk. And there are times when we watch him struggle and flinch from the pain of a man unable to control the functions of a body that once gave him a career and an identity. Tweel has crafted a film that goes beyond the facts of Gleason’s life into the depths of human anguish and resilience that define character. It promotes an awareness of ALS that goes beyond the best-intended any ice-bucket challenge — and ranks as a profound achievement.