"Gleason" is the product of over 1,000 hours of video diaries and interviews cut together depicting a mans battle with his own body. That's the entire premise of Gleason.
The hero of our story (And I mean that in every sense of the word "Hero") is Steve Gleason. Saints fans will remember Gleason forever for one of the most important moments in the history of sports, the blocked punt in the Saints return to the Superdome. Gleason has meant more to this region than most athletes anywhere, and fans have been with him every step of the way from the moment he went public with his diagnosis. Steve and the city of New Orleans are now forever linked.
But this is not a movie about the Saints. It's not a movie about football. Those of you who go in hoping for candid moments with Drew Brees (He is in the movie as a friend and charitable benefactor, but is never on screen for more than a minute) or various cameos by Saints players over the past few years will leave the theater with that particular itch unscratched, but you will NOT leave disappointed. It is heartwarming to see Steve and his family rock the Black & Gold at every opportunity, but it serves as a reminder that football is only a small fraction of Gleason's DNA.
Not even a cursory knowledge of Gleason, the Saints, or football is necessary to extract the message cleanly. This is a story about the debilitating disease known as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, (ALS) or as it is more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
The movie summarizes Gleason's athletic accomplishments within the first ten or so minutes. He grew up in Washington and took the Washington State Cougars to a Rose Bowl as a linebacker. In the NFL, he would enjoy a respectable career as a special teams ace and spot-duty safety, the highlight of his career being the aforementioned blocked punt.
In short order, this is where the movie moves away from sweeping shots from Monday Night Football shot by high powered cameras to much more subtle and intimate video diaries. Steve records the first one in his home citing discomfort and weakness in his body, and is quickly diagnosed as ALS.
Before the shock can set in as Gleason battles with the grim news, he is given the best news of his life: his wife Michel Varisco is pregnant. The news comes swiftly enough to the point where Gleason still has control over most of his body. Remember: ALS shuts down the physical functions of ones body; all cognitive functions are left alone.
ALS can be terminal in about five or so years, which makes Gleason realize he may truly never have a conversation with his son Rivers or know what kind of person he is going to be. If a true personality in humans begin to form at say, four years old, it may already be too late. Would Rivers ever know what kind of man his father was? Would he ever hear him tell him he loves him in his own voice? Gleason decided to make the most of the time he had left before the birth, And so begins the recording and documenting of countless video diaries.
These videos for Rivers were designed to give Rivers valuable insight in his life in his own words while he could still speak. Gleason covers topics that range from love to faith to never getting your girlfriends name tattooed on your body.
What they also do, is provide a glimpse of the slow and steady decline of Gleason's mechanical functions. At the beginning of the movie, Gleason speaks swiftly and with clarity as anyone would. Shortly after the diaries begin, just the prospect of talking requires a bit of mental fortitude to make his mouth move correctly. It's not long after that plans are made for live after autonomy.
Any further plot summary would make your theater going experience suffer. It's been a few days now since I've seen Gleason, and entire scenes play out in my head late at night over and over again.
Never has a movie had such an effect on me immediately after exiting a theater. I had cried twice during the movie during separate scenes, but I had never been moved like this. Never before have I ever wanted to squeeze all the life I can out of every single day since seeing Gleason. It grips you by tapping into every primal instinct.
One scene that has stuck with me above all others is a tear filled diary after what Gleason describes as "A real bad day". After months of mental exhaustion due to his illness, he realizes on camera that his talking days are over. He lets out the loudest guttural roar he can summon and breaks down in tears. Gleason has been my hero long before this movie. To see him at his lowest broke me.
It's hard to walk out of the theater and not be thankful. Thankful that you can get up out of your seat once the credits role or that you can hug your loved ones or even tap into that primal need to just yell sometimes. The movie will not guilt trip you, that's not even close to what Gleason is trying to do. Gleason is trying to inspire you.
The second half of the movie kicks off once Gleason begins to accept his limitations completely, but that's when he and the movie becomes their most powerful. Gleason makes a point to say that his future is bigger than his past, and he has most certainly ptoved that.
It's not exagerrating at all to describe Gleason's adventures post diagnosis as a second life. He's spearheaded the movement to secure ALS rights and happiness to those suffering. Since being diagnosed, he's been to the summit of Machu Picchu and to the senate floor. The Steve Gleason act has provided many ALS patients with the technology and care necessary to communicate and live longer, more comfortable lives. That doesn't happen without Team Gleason's contributions. Gleason was robbed of his voice and ability to move his own body, but through his loving support system and 'don't quit' attitude.
This is a movie I have recommended to everyone since seeing it. To my mother who still thinks the Saints employ Jimmy Graham to my friends who have never watched a sporting event in their lives. This isn't just a good story, it's an important story.
I wouldn't go as far as to say it's easy to draw parallels between Gleason's life and your life, but it's possible. Each scene is a reminder to love, forgive, scream and yell while you still can. It is so easy to learn through Steve. After seeing this movie, everything we complain about on a daily basis seems minor by comparison. Gleason made me want to be a better person with a better life.
I don't mean to build Gleason up to be some deity. He's an extraordinary person, but at the same time just a regular dude. The movie is full of moments that show Gleason being irritable and unkind to Michel and his team of supporters. But the movie needs scenes like these, it's the reminder that he's human and we can draw lessons from him. He's a real person. He sometimes acts irrationally. He loves Pearl Jam, and he loves to crack jokes, his sense of humor not affected over all this time. When he has to resort to suppositories for bowl movements, he asks his nurse if he's "The hottest guy she has ever finger fucked."
It doesn't matter that the movie about the ex Saints football players has nothing to do with the Saints, football, or New Orleans. Gleason is like an old friend to the region of New Orleans. This is our way of catching up with him and seeing a new side of him at the same time. Saints fans especially owe it to him for what he did on the football field. The first few minutes will get your tear ducts open if you remember 2006.
I hope you go see Gleason. I think we have a lot to learn from him. It has a limited theater run, only playing in select theaters. There are whispers that it could be streaming digitally soon. At your soonest convenience, you owe it to yourself to see Gleason. It may just make you a better person.