SXSW Film Review – Gleason
I am not a football fan, never have been, never will be. Choosing to see a documentary about an NFL player was a stretch for me. I wasn’t expecting much from the documentary, Gleason, which I chose to see late at night at the SXSW Film Festival. Let’s just say that I left Gleason with tears streaming down my face, floored by the journey I just experienced.
Gleason revolves around the life of Steve Gleason, a former Washington State University football player (1997-2000) and former New Orleans Saints defensive back (retired in 2008). Steve Gleason is one of those all around good guys, but rejected the typical NFL persona. Fun, loved the outdoors, adventurous, he lived his life to the max. This all came to a stop when he was diagnosed with ALS after he started experiencing some muscle twitches/weakness. Steve is married to Michel, and they found out they were expecting a child only six weeks after his diagnosis. The documentary uses personal footage as Steve started a video diary for his unborn child, knowing full well what awaited him as his body succumbed to ALS.
This documentary is an incredibly personal journey, one that would not have been possible without personal video cameras and smart phones. When Steve started documenting his journey and diary, there was no planned documentary. It was only after Steve filmed himself and Michel for about eight months does someone from the outside, Ty Sminton-Small, see footage and takes up filming the Gleason family. He ended up living with the Gleasons for two years, documenting Steve’s journey with additional footage by David Lee. After four years and 1300 hours of footage, director Clay Tweel was brought on to form the resulting documentary. I only point out the details of what it took to get to the final cut of Gleason because it was no easy task, and trying to tell the story of this larger than life man cut down by ALS is a remarkable feat.
Steve’s personal videos are filled with promise, sadness, strength, courage, and, best of all, a sense of humor. While you may cry, you will also laugh your ass off because both Steve and Michel have strong senses of humor. At one point in the doc, a family friend, Blair Casey, is brought on to help manage Steve physically after he starts to lose his mobility. Blair says that it wasn’t really a question of choice, but that Michel saying, “You either quit your job or I’m going to kick you in the dick.” There is plenty of that wit mixed in with the stark reality of ALS.
Through the five years of Steve’s life seen in Gleason, there are many poignant moments that continue to stand out me even after almost a month has gone by. They include the first time Michel sees Steve’s gait change, his return to the Saints’ field to lead the “Who Dat” call, the birth of their son, Rivers, confrontations with his father, struggles with faith and promising therapies, and foremost his unrelenting will to live despite all of his setbacks and medical issues from ALS. Many would have given up before he did, and he continued to live for his wife and son.
Let me be clear, you will leave Gleason with tears in your eyes, hope, and appreciation for your own life. I am on the verge of tears again, writing this review almost a month later, just reliving Gleason in my mind. It has not left me that Steve was my age, in his prime, and in excellent health and then, basically overnight, he is diagnosed with ALS. Just like that your life is changed forever. This is the reality of Gleason, but it is not a sob story. It does want you to feel sorry for Steve. If anything, it rallies you to support ALS research and Steve’s foundation, Team Gleason. Steve Gleason is truly an inspiration for the way he continues to live his life. I cannot praise Gleason any higher than saying it is one of the best documentaries of the year.
Gleason won the Audience Award for Festival Favorites at the 2016 SXSW Film Festival. The documentary will be released on July 15, 2016 in LA, NY, Seattle, and New Orleans followed by a national expansion from Amazon Studios and Open Road Films.