Gleason Review - Raw, Emotional, Vulnerable

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Gleason, from Amazon Studios and Open Road Films, comes the story of Steve Gleason, the former New Orleans Saint Special Teams player and ALS survivor, and chronicles the advent and decline of the pro baller who once brought a city back from the brink.

Directed by Clay Tweel, Gleason features Steve Gleason his wife, Michel, son, Rivers and family members, His parents, Mike and Gail, brother Kyle,  and caregiver/friend,Godsend, Blair Casey. Gleason also features Michel's family Paul Varisco, Sr., Jill Varisco, Paul Varisco, Jr., and Vinnie Varisco.   Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, The Reverend Jesse Jackson, former NFL quarterback Kurt Warner, former Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway all make appearances.

Gleason begins with a full face screen shot of Steve Gleason explaining the importance of the video journals. Now more than ever, as in the background, a baby’s room.

The documentary cuts to Steve Gleason, a healthy, vibrant, college football player. The perfect fall day, he is explaining the history of the upcoming football game: Ohio State University Buckeyes verses Washington State Cougars. Gleason, a maniac on the field, made his presence known.

The documentary weaves first person interviews with family members and here his dad, Mike Gleason, begins to talk about Steve’s early athletic abilities. Trophies, Number one, the best, gifted, Steve practiced hard, played hard and it showed. He attended Washington State on a scholarship.

Gleason, a former member of the New Orleans Saints, and when Hurricane Katrina ripped a hole in the roof of the Superdome. New Orleans was underwater and more than 20,000 stranded residents spent a miserable week without service. The Saints were losing faith. Nearly two years later, the Superdome had finally been repaired and the New Orleans Saints were playing the season opener at home against the San Francisco 49ers.

The 49er’s attempted to punt and Steve Gleason did what he did best up to that point and out of nowhere made one of the most significant blocks in his life. The Saints went on to score and touchdown and win the game.

The punt block sent the hometown fans into a frenzy and was named the “rebirth block” and went on to symbolize everything New Orleans is known for and a resilience in the time of hardship and disaster.  It was a pinnacle moment for Gleason, the Saints and the city.

During this time, he met Michel Varisco and as the documentary tells it, they were both adventure travelers. Gleason moves into the Steve and Michel pre-marriage season sharing stories of their expected life. Michel is candid in her remembrances and in her feelings. As it is told, she was a confirmed thrill seeker and he the same.

After Steve retires from the NFL in 2006, he and Michel are married in 2008. The documentary doesn’t spend a lot of time on the early days of their marriage. It cuts quickly to an unexpected and at first possible football related permanent damage. Steve as the documentary explains is have some twitching, as most would explain it. His upper chest, legs.

So the camera follows as Steve and Michel receive the gut punch news: Steve Gleason, former NFL Special Teams player has ALS. And six weeks later, Michel and Steve find out they are pregnant.

He and Michel are as informed about ALS as most. Unless one directly feels the effects it remains the disease of Stephen Hawking and Lou Gehrig. Now ALS has a new face, that of Steve Gleason.

His deterioration is textbook, it follows almost exactly the timeline stated in the sterile description, and they share every moment. From the beginning, to the last moments of his speech, his decline and hope and decline of faith. A final declaration to his born again father, who hopes against hope that God will show them mercy and heal Steve. They attend the faith healer service and finally after the belief, the exhaustive belief that the miracle of healing, a completing healing, is outside the realm of possibility and for some reason here it is. He declares he believes his soul is saved.

The truth really is that Mike Gleason, Steve’s dad, is a parent dealing with his own emotions knowing his son is dying and won’t get any better. No amount of prayer, medicine, hope, doctors, are going to change that. The description tells us that patients with ALS can live a long time and the deterioration of the body and all its functions are so uncomfortable that they choose to die.

They get down to making the most of a really bad, the scope of the word bad doesn’t even describe the situation, a beyond bad health crisis interwoven with moments of gold and good.

In between this really bad situation they have these incredible bright moments, the birth of Rivers, their son, early in the stages of ALS, the trip to Alaska, the Who Dat chant, the dedication of the rebirth statute and once the foundation took off the widely successful ALS Ice Bucket Challenge that garnered over $100M in donations and it was announced the effort generated a breakthrough in the fight to end ALS.

Gleason is vulnerable and raw. These are actual moments in a life that can no longer function. A disease that eats away at the neurological elements and lives behind the physical shell. The mind, retains all its memories, all its functions. It is dreaded.

Clay Tweel, Gleason director reviewed all 1300 hours of film before heading to the edit room. It is uplifting, honest, touching.

Gleason is probably the most emotionally moving documentary I've seen. It is a story whose ending is left unwritten as Steve and family continue living, hoping sharing and believing as they face the demon and look in the face every day and say who dat? Who dat say they gonna beat dem saints?

Gleason opens July 29, 2016. See it. You won’t be the same.

 

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