Review: Gleason (Tweel, 2016) – Sundance 2016

gleason

I don’t watch football–not of the NFL, college, high school, or even pee wee variety–so I might have been one of the only people in my peer group who hadn’t heard of Steve Gleason, the former NFL defensive lineback of the New Orleans Saints who became a city hero when he blocked a punt in a play that led to a touchdown and, later, a win. It was the first game the Saints had played in New Orleans in almost 21 months, post-Katrina.

Those who hadn’t heard of him as a football player might have known about his later work raising money to improve ALS patients’ lives (he founded a non-profit called Team Gleason). Gleason himself was diagnosed with the debilitating neurodegenerative disease at the age of 34, just weeks before he learned his wife was pregnant with their first child. This documentary resulted from Gleason’s project to create a video diary for his son Rivers, to give as much as possible of himself while he still could.

The film’s subtitle, THE DIARY OF A SAINT, initially turned me off the film. That was, anyway, before I realized that Gleason was a New Orleans Saint; the double entendre blunts the offense. What I didn’t want to watch was a straightforward uplifting film, a film about overcoming, a film with a relentlessly positive message. That must make me seem a grouch. Put another way, I wasn’t interested in a documentary that didn’t present a complicated picture of suffering and desire, difficulty as well as inspiration. The word “saint” just didn’t promise any nuance.

But Gleason proved to rise above the pun in its subtitle. The documentary does not shy away from the awkward or the painful and it is, thankfully, short on the sublime, on mawkish sentimentalism or affirmation of life. Because there is nothing sublime or redemptive or cathartic about seeing a vibrant, life-loving man deteriorate into someone who can’t even take a shit without assistance.

Is Gleason a hero? Undoubtedly to some, yes. He is courageous; he is persistent. Not a saint (in the lowercase sense of the word), but someone to admire. What prevents the documentary from becoming an elongated Gleason commercial is the inclusion of the viewpoint of Michel, Gleason’s wife, who (in an echo of Jane Hawking) becomes his full-time caretaker as well as (virtually) single parent to Rivers while Gleason throws himself into fundraising for his non-profit. Never did the saying that behind every great man there’s a great woman ring more true. Perhaps she’s the saint of the subtitle? Not implausible, but she has no desire for sainthood. With the air of someone who simply hasn’t the time for enjoying praise–and no use for glory, either–Michel throws the camera a tired smile and cracks one of her characteristic whip-smart jokes.

Those jokes–and Gleason’s–are what keeps the film from becoming simply a sojourn into one family’s private hell. In some respects, the voyage does indeed seem hellish (never by the Gleasons’ own admission, though). But there are moments of sincere happiness, even joy. The juxtaposition of these two extremes (sometimes in a single moment) is what complicates the film’s narrative, makes it interesting and worth watching.

Ultimately, though, the filmmakers refrain from asking the most difficult questions. Out of compassion for their subjects, perhaps. I’ll leave it up to you guess what those difficult questions are because I, too, am too much of a coward to frame them. But the evasion is disappointing. One senses richer (if more uncomfortable) material just outside the camera’s viewfinder.

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