If you’re at all worried that your empathy chip might be on the fritz, a viewing of the extraordinary new documentary Gleason might make for a good test-run: By the end of this intensely up-close, two-hour account of a young athlete’s physical decline due to ALS you’ll be rubbing your eyes, overwhelmed by a sense of…
…OK, I can tell I’m about to lose you. Believe me, I’m used to it: Any time I’ve tried to explain Gleason to a friend, I’ve been greeted with the same slow head-shake, the same firm-but-polite response of, “I’m sure it’s great. But there’s no way I’m going to watch that.” And I get why: The idea of seeing former New Orleans Saints linebacker Steve Gleason slowly lose control of his body sounds absolutely wrenching. And in a year like 2016, when a surprise new gut-punch seems to be waiting for you on the corner every morning, no one wants to voluntarily get bummed out. We’re all pretty much over-wrenched as it is.
But Gleason isn’t a downer; in fact, it has so many moments of hard-won joy and blunt humor that, at times, you allow yourself to briefly forget that you’re watching someone fight for their life. And its subject is most definitely a fighter: Early on in the film, we see footage of Gleason as a young, ambitious high-school player and, eventually, a Saint whose moment of glory was blocking a punt during a crucial 2006 game played just shortly after Hurricane Katrina. From those older clips, it’s clear Gleason is career-focused and prize-eyed, while maintaining a good-natured crunchiness. He looks like someone who, in the ’90s, would have totally camped out with you at the H.O.R.D.E. festival–and then gotten up every morning at 5 a.m. to do sit-ups and sprints.
That may be why, when he first tells the camera that he’s begun to experience some unsettling physical symptoms, you can’t help but think, Dude, you’ll be fine. And even when he’s diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis)–and then told he and his wife, Michel Varisco, are about to have their first child–Gleason remains upbeat. He’s determined to push through this for as long as he can, and as he begins treatment, he begins recording a video journal for his soon-to-be son.
At this point, director Clay Tweel–who directed last year’s layered, hilarious documentary Finders Keepers, about a dispute over a severed foot–could have easily put together the non-fiction equivalent of My Life, Michael Keaton’s mawkish dying-dad fantasy, and simply doubled-down on uplift. But Gleason’s decline is swift and brutal, and if he has to confront it head-on, Tweel wants us to confront it, too. Few details of Gleason’s new life are spared: We see him stumble to a faith-healer’s floor after attempting to run; watch as he struggles to move his bowels, asking a nurse, “Am I the hottest guy you ever ass-fingered?”; and, in the movie’s most can’t-believe-I’m-seeing-this moment, we witness him confront his father about their differing religious views, Gleason’s speech slurring as he pounds his father’s chest and notes that, despite what his dad might think, “My soul is saved.”
A Great Year for True Stories–In an Iffy Year for the Truth
If Gleason, out now, consisted mainly of these kind of high-drama moments, it would be a slog. But it uses a single subject to tell a wider, more panoramic story, the way so many great documentaries do. And even though 2016 has been an iffy year for truth–a year in which even the most rock-solid objective facts could still somehow be disassembled and dismissed online–Gleason is further proof that it’s been a fantastic one for deep-diving, rigorously entertaining documentaries that are more than the sum of their parts. This summer alone gave us O.J.: Made in America, which used the Simpson trial to dig into Los Angeles’ troubled racial history; Weiner, an indictment of not only modern political animals, but also the media responsible for their care and feeding; and De Palma, which deftly used Brian De Palma’s career to illustrate the decline of modern studio system.
(But wait, there’s more! Ever want to see the behind-the-scenes machinations of the self-help culture? Check out Tony Robbins: I’m Not Your Guru. Need to immerse yourself in the day-to-day of a fitness-obsessed, increasingly out-of-control ’80s cult? Watch Holy Hell. Ever wonder what would happen if Werner Herzog got sucked into the Internet? That’d be Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World.)
Like all of these films, Gleason wrestles with several stories at once, many of which are unique to Gleason’s position and personality. The movie deals with the kinds of fame-pitfalls most of us would never imagine: Gleason’s visibility and wealth allow him to receive top-notch medical care, but it also means he has to deal with the well-intentioned, but tiring, celeb-industrial fundraising complex. He’s honest about still wanting a little bit of the spotlight a little, but it takes him a while to admit it might be burning him out.
This Summer’s Real Superhero
And while Gleason’s trials are there for the world to see, Gleason also takes care to focus on the slow, hidden toll his health has taken on his wife, who becomes his de facto caregiver, attending countless doctor’s offices and functions (Michel kills much of her time by doodling into a notepad; by the end of the film, she has enough cartoons to open a small gallery exhibit). Their marriage is marked by a sort of ambient kindness and get-over-yourself prodding, but it’s challenged by Gleason’s worsening condition. When he takes a petty potshot at her after a particularly tough day, it’s a reminder that, hey, sick people can be jerks sometimes, too.
There are a lot of tough days (and nights) in Gleason, and for those who prefer their documentaries be tidy and tear-free, I will not lie: As the movie winds down–and as Steve and Michel’s son, Rivers, begins to grow up in front of your eyes–you may feel a slight heaviness on your head, as if someone had just put on a football helmet filled with wet sand. Tweel may never resort to cheap sentimentality, but that doesn’t mean we can’t–after all, we’re humans, and cheap sentimentality is one of our go-to modes (and not a bad one, at that). I can’t promise that Gleason won’t leave you a bit wrecked, but I can guarantee that, at the very least, you’ll marvel at how it demonstrates the ways that illness can fortify one’s resolve–even while it tears away at the body. It’s the year’s first real superhero story.