Gil LeBreton

Gleason movie provides raw look at ALS’ tragic grip

Former New Orleans Saints football player Steve Gleason, center, battles ALS while trying make the most of his time with wife Michel, left, and son Rivers, as shown in the documentary ‘Gleason.’
Former New Orleans Saints football player Steve Gleason, center, battles ALS while trying make the most of his time with wife Michel, left, and son Rivers, as shown in the documentary ‘Gleason.’ Open Road Films

People who go to the theater to see sports movies don’t want to cry all over their popcorn and dill pickles.

Oh, they do. Rocky can’t find Adrian, and Jimmy Chitwood hits the winning basket, and Kevin Costner wants to have one last game of catch with his dad.

And it tugs at our hearts, for varying personal reasons.

For those of us who follow the NFL’s New Orleans Saints – for the sake of disclosure, I’m a Saints fans by birth – Steve Gleason was a hero long before his battle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS – Lou Gehrig’s disease – became public.

On the city’s beloved Saints’ first night back in the restored Superdome after Hurricane Katrina, it was Gleason who electrified the home crowd with a blocked punt that produced a first quarter touchdown.

Gleason, always a spunky special teams guy, ended his eight-season NFL career by retiring two years later.

The documentary Gleason, which opens in theaters Friday, begins its story three years after that. Gleason has been diagnosed with ALS, his wife Michel is pregnant with their first child, and the former football player is shown recording a video journal for his yet-unborn child, because he fears the day may soon come when he no longer will have the power to speak.

In a way, it’s like the 1993 movie My Life that starred Michael Keaton, who also was trying to leave a video legacy for his unborn son.

Except that was Hollywood, and Keaton is a movie star.

In Gleason, the characters, like the disease, are real. With her big, brown eyes and who-dat accent, Michel Varisco Gleason is a true New Orleans girl, and you don’t need her many T-shirts to tell you that.

It is hard not to be impressed with Steve. He’s witty and considerate and remains well-spoken, even after having to turn over his speaking voice to the computer. He is also a big Pearl Jam fan, and the group’s Mike McCready and Eddie Vedder appear in the movie.

Gleason reminds me of ex-Maverick Steve Nash.

The visuals are raw indeed. We see the disease slowly take its toll on Gleason’s once-athletic body.

As Michel’s daily care responsibilities increased, the Gleasons turned the video tasks over to young film students David Lee and Ty Minton-Small, and director Clay Tweel was left with more than 1,300 hours of raw footage to sort through.

The visuals are raw indeed. We see the disease slowly take its toll on Gleason’s once-athletic body. We see the delivery room when Rivers Gleason is born. We see Gleason skydiving. We see him in the bedroom, asking his exhausted wife whether she cares anymore. We see him in the bathroom in a horribly uncomfortable scene that Gleason turns funny with a R-rated quip to an assisting nurse.

There are more than a few laughs in the film, but tears are inevitable. In one gut-wrenching scene, Gleason is alone taping a journal entry, and he expresses his exasperation over the increasing toll that the ALS is taking on his abilities.

"I want to punch something but I can’t," he strains to say. "All I can do . . . is scream."

The movie isn’t meant to be Hollywood’s way of passing the hat for ALS. Rather, the deadly disease speaks for itself.

Trying to attach some purpose to his personal struggle, he established the Team Gleason foundation, which eventually led in 2015 to Congress passing the Steve Gleason Act. The bill makes speech generating devices, such as the computer one used by Gleason, available through Medicare for patients with ALS, Parkinson’s and other neurological disorders.

The movie, however, doesn’t dwell on his quest for funding. Only a few seconds are devoted to Gleason, sitting in his motorized chair, drenched by the Ice Bucket Challenge that was created to increase ALS awareness.

The movie isn’t meant to be Hollywood’s way of passing the hat for ALS. Rather, the deadly disease speaks for itself.

Gleason literally shrinks before our eyes. Michel’s eyes, vibrant and playful, are weary and weakened by the movie’s end.

Ultimately, even though Steve describes the narrative as a story about fathers and sons, it is just as much about husbands and wives, and the love they have to share when confronted with a life-altering tragedy.

Young Rivers, whom we see from the instant he is born, becomes an adorable addition to the documentary’s cast. The scenes of him, riding on his father’s lap in the motorized chair, are what many will take away from Gleason. Rather than steal the movie, however, Rivers completes its circle.

Don’t expect to find any Hollywood ending, though. There is no final blocked punt to show in slow motion. There is no soaring, Gonna Fly Now finale.

Gleason is raw because ALS is real.

Go see it. You can thank me later

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