Heroism can take on many forms. A professional athlete, at the peak of his career, may block a punt in the opening seconds of an NFL game and reignite the hopes and aspirations of an entire city, decimated in the wake of one of the worst floods in living memory. Some time later, this same man may find himself suffering from ALS. In choosing a path of philanthropy, becoming an ambassador for others with the disease and through his own brutal experience, former New Orleans Saints line-backer Steve Gleason again placed on a pedestal, albeit for different reasons.
As harrowing in its depiction of physical, emotional and mental suffering as it is enriching in terms of a truly remarkable never-say-die fight against crippling adversity, Clay Tweel’s Gleason confronts ALS with the same courageous pragmatism, gritted teeth and humour as this deeply affecting documentary’s leading man. It is elevated far above and beyond the mere adulation so often heaped upon the subjects of sporting biopics by exploring the psychology behind its subject with frank, compassionate intimacy. “It’s not gonna crush my life, even though it might crush my body,” says Steve after a devastating diagnosis in 2011.
Just six weeks later his wife, Michel, discovers she is pregnant but the joy of this occasion is blighted by the two to five year life expectancy attributed to most people with the disease. There is a great deal of very raw and immediate emotion in Gleason and none more so than in the direct address of a video diary that Steve decides to film for his then unborn child so that he or she may come to know him retroactively should the worst happen. Some of this targeted stream of consciousness is almost unbearable but the tenderness and sincerity of advice offered in all areas of growing up is frequently touching, and not knowing when the end may come also forces Steve’s hand when it comes to dealing with issues with his own father.
Having found religion later in life, the elder man’s belief system is to be challenged and a number of demons from a difficult upbringing brought into the light, leaving hard truths to be excised. Fractious discussions coalesce to understanding and peace and two scenes in particular between the men will bring a lump to the throat of even the most hard-nosed of viewers. As his condition worsens, the quality of life lived by both Steve and Michel – as his principle caregiver – allows more complex moral arguments to float into the room without ever becoming overbearing. Knowing what is the best thing for a loved one can only truly be answered by those living through such hard times but Gleason brings these matters very close to the surface for all.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens