Dir.: Clay Tweel | Documentary with Steve Gleason, Michel Varisco; USA | 110 min.
Director/co-editor Clay Tweel (Finders Keepers) tells the story of Stephen Gleason, who played eight years for the New Orleans Saints as pro-line-backer in the NFL, and was diagnosed with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) in 2011, three years after having retired from the sport. As irony has it, his son Rivers was born in October of that year.
Live expectancy with ALS (aka Lou Gehrig’s Disease) is five years, and the documentary opens with Gleason starting his video blog for his son while he retains the ability to talk, but already has difficulties annunciating. Later, Gleason is to lose his voice completely (to be replaced by a voice box, directed from a computer keyboard) and even his ability to breathe, he is now on a mechanical ventilator. But he is still alive, using a wheelchair and needing 24-hour care by a team, led by his wife Michel, an artist. Gleason appreciates the contradictions of his situation: once, he was a sporting hero making a daring play on the football field, where he became a symbol for the resurgence of New Orleans devastated by the hurricane. the city, including the Super Dome. Now he is largely incontinent.
Michel is looking after two children: but the strain has caused a growing distance between the parents. Rivers loves being taken for a ride by his Dad on the wheelchair, but one suspects, that this will not last much longer. Stephen’s video log is a testament of his care for his son – particularly considering his own relationship with his father. Stephen grew up in a dysfunctional family, his father not being able to give him the love he needed. Even during the first stages of ALS, Gleason sen. insisted on his son visiting a Christian faith healer – a move Michel called “bullshit”. Stephen has used his celebrity status for other ALS sufferers: his ‘Team Gleason’ helps to get equipment and care (not covered by insurance) for other ALS patients.
But Tweel’s hagiographic approach avoids some valid questions relating to American Football. On a small scale, the Gleasons worked with the filmmaker Sean Pamphilon until the release of the audio-tape regarding the ‘bounty scandal’ of the New Orleans Saints. This involved a coach asking his players to injure the opposition on purpose – in return for a bonus. Stephen Gleason tried to prevent the release of the tape, insisting that he did not authorise it. And then there is the issue of overriding connection between brain damage and the sport itself – long repressed by the NFL, until recently. These very relevant issues should have been mentioned.
Gleason shows a father struggling to be the best possible father for his son – watching Stephen’s condition deteriorate, both physically and psychologically, is hard. DoPs David Lee and Ty Minton-Small never take the easy way out and show every detail of Gleason’s fight which is still going on to this day. AS
ON GENERAL RELEASE FROM 17 MARCH 2017