‘Gleason’ explores the complexity of father-son relationships

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Steve Gleason, WSU alumnus and former safety for the New Orleans Saints is revered and remembered for his pivotal blocked punt during the team’s first game back in the Superdome post-Hurricane Katrina. His actions gave hope and revitalized the spirit of the people of New Orleans after their devastating ordeal. Gleason seems to have an affinity for inspiring and being a symbol of strength in the face of adversity as he battles ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), a.k.a Lou Gehrig’s disease as documented in the film, “Gleason.”

An undeniably moving and powerful showcase of the human spirit, “Gleason” manages to find a balance of crafting a bluntly real and at times saddening tale, but never allowing the audience to wallow in pity for too long.

That is due in part to the abundant myriad of footage director Clay Tweel had to work with. The documentary started out as just Gleason shooting video diaries for his unborn son, Rivers. Gleason was diagnosed with ALS in 2011 at age 34. Around that same time, his wife, Michel Varisco, learned she was pregnant. The video diaries became a mission for Gleason, as he states, “I want to pass on as much of who I am as I possibly can to you.”

Gleason’s words mark the kind of man he is. As he faces a disease that does nothing but takes, staying others-centered is at the forefront of his mind. He proves his unwavering conviction to be a loving and caring father for his son, while the film highlights the ups and downs of Gleason’s relationship with his own father.

The hurdles Gleason and his father Mike go through mostly come in the form of faith and spirituality. In one particularly stirring scene, Gleason angrily and near-unintelligibly scolds his father for trying to push his brand of faith on him as he already has faith and believes he is saved. The film fearlessly explores the anguish both live through as one struggles with ALS and the other watches his own flesh and blood deteriorate with the potential of dying.

Much of the film deals with ideas of father-son relationships. Even Eddie Vedder, front man for the band Pearl Jam, makes an appearance as Gleason interviews him about his lack of a father figure in his life.

ALS does not just take a toll on the individual, but rather families as a whole. Gleason is fortunate to have the concrete support systems he does in his friends, family and community. Gleason and company affectionately dub the support team the “badass unit.”

The film is so invitational into intimate moments that it’s hard not to feel like you’re a member of their “badass unit.” Gleason is able to channel that morale and support into his Team Gleason organization, a non-profit charity focused on providing people affected by ALS with the technology and support they need to live the best lives possible.

Because of Team Gleason’s vocal and fierce crusade on ALS, the Steve Gleason Act was passed unanimously by Congress in 2015. The law was a decisive win in the battle against ALS, as it makes crucial technologies available to patients through Medicare and Medicaid. These technologies include the innovative speech-generating devices Gleason uses to type and communicate through eye movements.

Gleason is all about prevailing through obstacles and staying triumphant. His own mortality motivates him to be limitless as his body continues to try and find new ways of confining him. Watching a star athlete held in high regard for their gripping ability slowly lose grip of his body functions is heart-wrenching, but watching him stand tall is rewarding in equal or greater measures.

While the big victories of sky-diving or traversing a mountain given his condition are impressive, it is the small and invisible ones, like getting in bed or successfully going to the bathroom, that leave unforgettable impressions on the viewer.

Team Gleason’s motto of “No White Flags” is something they embody every day. Gleason does have moments of doubt, fear or waning faith, but he never quits and neither does his unit.

Gleason and his team don’t consider themselves to be more than just regular people. They feel undeserving of the titles of hero or saint, but one thing is for sure: they are remarkable people.

The documentary “Gleason” is an absolute must-watch. He may have been number 37 on the field during his time with the New Orleans Saints, but he’ll sure be number one in the hearts of anyone that catches a glimpse of this incredible story.

Grade: A

Runtime: 1 hour and 50 minutes

Rating: R

*Playing in select theaters and available to rent or buy on Amazon starting Oct 25.