If you know me, it’ll come as no surprise that Gleason was one of my most anticipated films at Sundance this year. It was the first one that I scheduled when ticket booking opened. Walking into the theater I instantly got chills as Pearl Jam blared through the speakers. No other film I’ve seen this week has had pre-screening music. As in so many other areas of life, Steve was leaving his mark in special ways.
Steve Gleason wrote himself into NFL history and New Orleans lore when he blocked an Atlanta Falcons punt in the Saints first game back in the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina. A couple of years after his retirement from the NFL in 2008, he was diagnosed with ALS. Shortly after that diagnosis, he and his wife Michelle learned that they were pregnant with their first child, a son who they would name Rivers. Rather than giving up or giving in to the disease, Steve’s life since the diagnosis has been one of courage, determination, and inspiration in the face of ALS’ crippling effects. He and Michelle started the Steve Gleason Foundation, whose mantra is NO WHITE FLAGS, which helps raise awareness of the disease and provides equipment and experienced to people suffering from ALS.
Directed by Clay Tweel and comprised, mainly, of thousands of hours of the Gleasons’ home footage and Steve’s video journals he is leaving behind for his son, the film is as raw and evocative a documentary as I’ve seen in a long time. It is brutally honest about both Steve’s experiences of the disease and the strain that it puts on those around him, specifically Michelle. Although the film is inspiring and uplifting, it is not rosy-eyed. To borrow a line from one of the best football dramas, it is clear-eyed and full-hearted.
Director Tweel, when asked how the experience shaped him, said that it gives him a 30,000 foot perspective on his own problems. The film is full of the wisdom that those who endure challenges can share. When Steve says, “I believe that my future is bigger than my past,” it truly is breath-taking.
Gleason is as honest a portrayal of marriage that I have seen in film or television. Steve and Michelle’s commitment to each other…and to keep the camera rolling when things get tough…is nothing short of a blessing for the viewer. As their minister that married them said, marriage is all about how we react to and interact with our partners during tough times.
A final theme running throughout the film is the importance of righting broken or strained relationships, and the film focuses on Steve’s attempt to reconcile with his father. This is all the more profound as he is also coming to grips with what it means to him to be a father bound by the limitations ALS is placing on him. Steve’s relationship with his father is complicated by faith–specifically his father’s more conservative Christianity which leaves him questioning his son’s salvation–even though Steve seems to believe in God’s existence and is deeply spiritual. His father’s assessment of him as a dad is another one of those transcendent moments that the film seems to effortlessly provide.
Gleason a must-see film, not just for Saints fans, that will release in theaters later this summer.