On September 25, 2006, New Orleans Saints player Steve Gleason was responsible for one of the most dramatic moments in the NFL team’s history, blocking a punt by the Atlanta Falcons in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, enabling the Saints to score a touchdown. This was the first score in the Saints’s first game in New Orleans in nearly two years, following the devastation that the city had suffered during Hurricane Katrina, so the play came to be informed with the metaphorical weight of hope and recovery.
Gleason shows this play early on, and it’s a remarkable feat of literal head-first fearlessness, as Steve dives toward the kicker’s feet with quicksilver bravado. This play informs the documentary, haunting it as an example of the man’s perseverance and daring. Steve retired from football in 2008, gearing up to start a family with his wife, Michel, who learned that she was pregnant not long after he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. More commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, ALS renders the brain unable to communicate with the body’s muscles, leading to elaborate paralysis that, perhaps even more perversely, doesn’t affect cognitive awareness.
Gleason is assembled from footage shot over a course of several years by director J. Clay Tweel, as well as by Steve and his family, providing a terrifyingly intimate portrait of a rowdy and adventurous man’s gradual entrapment within himself. Steve and Michel are established to be free spirits who travel the world, searching for visceral experiences and generally drinking in life. Their casual simpatico provides Gleason with an initial jolt of pleasure that inspires foreboding. A clock hangs over the film, as we know that Steve will get steadily worse. This suspense is exacerbated by Steve’s video journals, which are intended for his initially unborn child, who’s delivered over the course of the film’s running time and revealed to be a boy they name Rivers. As the child grows older, developing his motor skills, his father regresses, placing Michel in the awkward and demoralizing position of raising two physical children, causing her to feel nearly as constrained as her husband.
Much of Gleason is painfully moving, and given the extremity of the subject matter, which courts our own fears and inspires guilty thoughts within us for taking our freedoms for granted, there’s virtually no way it wouldn’t be. It would take a person of profound callousness not to be stirred, for instance, by the sight of Steve in his wheelchair, giving Rivers a ride around the house in his lap as the baby coos happily. But the documentary has an irritating habit of depending on this natural reaction within the audience, letting the subject matter do the heavy lifting. Quite a bit of the potentially uncomfortable portions of Steve and Michel’s story appear to be unexamined by the filmmaker, who’s looking to make his audience cry, arousing their interest in ALS. The latter part of this aim is respectable, but it tethers Gleason to the responsibilities of advertising, limiting its functions as art.
One comes to distrust Gleason’s pathos, because the documentary always appears to be selling something.
It’s never mentioned that Steve worked with other filmmakers on this project, and that he’s careful about what’s shown to the public, having had disputes with others for releasing material that paints a seamier picture of the NFL. Of course, this isn’t good copy for a saintly underdog tale, and it doesn’t align with the tortured earnestness that defines the Steve we see. The possibility that Steve’s flamboyance on the field might have contributed to his ailments is voiced once, by Steve’s father, and in a context that makes his father seem clueless and tastelessly eager to cast blame during a vulnerable moment. Gleason pays tribute to daring while eliding its potentially disproportional cost because, again, this is inconvenient for an uplifting sports-themed rollercoaster ride. The unimaginable adjustments that Michel has had to make in her life, caring for a child and a suffering husband at the same time, is given short shrift. What about her resentments? Or her and Steve’s sexual frustrations? What about the ungodly anger that everyone here must feel?
These issues are often alluded to obliquely, and usually chased with reassuring affirmation—though the best scene addresses them directly, when Steve, now speaking through a voice box, intuits that his wife is fed up with him, and both are eaten up with guilt by this undeniable and understandable truth. Steve observes that she doesn’t look at him anymore, and heartbreakingly asks what he can do to be more important to her. This is also one of the rare moments in the film in which formal grammar actively bolsters the subject matter’s meaning: Michel and Steve are on opposite ends of a room, seemingly separated by an unfathomable distance.
Certain sequences also appear staged, which isn’t necessarily a problem if such artifice is interrogated. During an emotional climax between Steve and his father, the latter regards a camera, appearing to check if he’s getting the scene right. This is a startling break from the film’s reality that could potentially engender our trust in the filmmakers for illustrating their willingness to challenge their own illusions. But, in this context, such a fissure seems inadvertent. Similarly, Eddie Vedder grants an interview with Steve, and the former is so canned, so clearly in control of the emotional effect he wishes to have on the camera, that he negates the potential poignancy of a hero/fan encounter. One comes to distrust Gleason’s pathos, because the doc always appears to be selling something. It knows it’s one of those films that we’re aren’t culturally allowed to dislike, emotionally boxing us in a corner.