“As I think about Steve Gleason and I think about his family and I think about his journey, Steve symbolizes the strength of the human spirit.” –Drew Brees.
Everyone knows Steve Gleason for his famous blocked punt playing for the Saints in 2006, in their first home game post-Katrina. It led to a much-needed win against the Atlanta Falcons, and, many feel, symbolized the rebirth of New Orleans.
Though this heroic play will live on forever in the hearts of Saints fans everywhere, Gleason has also become a hero of another sort. Since being diagnosed in 2011 with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis—better known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, he has become the face of ALS. Besides fighting a courageous battle of his own against the disease, Gleason also started “Team Gleason”, an organization whose mission is to increase awareness of the disease, raise money to help those diagnosed lead a better life, and to work towards better treatments and eventually a cure.
What ultimately became the film Gleason started out as a series of personal video messages to Gleason’s son Rivers, who was born shortly after he was diagnosed. Since ALS is a terminal disease, Gleason wanted to tell his son all the things he feared he wouldn’t have the chance to say in person. The video messages were then combined with 1300 hours of footage, recorded when cinematographer David Lee followed the Gleason family around over the course of four to five years. After about two years of editing and an appearance at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the film is now set to be released nationally on July 29.
Gleason follows Steve Gleason along his dramatic journey from his diagnosis through the progression of the disease and his physical decline. You will see the birth of his son and the evolution of his relationship with his wife, Michel Varisco Gleason, as she takes on the role of his primary caretaker. You’ll watch as Gleason attempts to cope with the disease, with the loss of his faculties—including his ability to talk and to breathe on his own without the assistance of expensive technology. He addresses his own mortality, his increasing frailty, his declining quality of life, his faith. And all the while he attempts to explain this unthinkable disease to his son, to his family, and to the rest of us who couldn’t possibly fathom what someone with ALS has to go through, were we not seeing it for ourselves via this film. The Gleason family invites you into their world and shares deeply personal moments that most wouldn’t have the courage to make public.
You’ll laugh, you’ll cry. The movie is absolutely heart-wrenching in parts and laugh-out-loud funny in others. Despite everything, Gleason never loses his sense of humor. At a recent advance screening of the film at the Orpheum Theater, Drew Brees said, “There is not anyone who could watch this film and not be moved in some way. I’m going to warn you right now, there will not be a dry eye in the house. Because it will grab ahold of your heart like that.” And he was right. Accompanying the film’s audio, the constant sounds of sniffling echoed around the theater throughout Gleason’s entire 111-minute duration.
Director Clay Tweel said he hopes to give the disease a public face through Gleason. And executive producer and Gleason’s father-in-law, Paul Varisco, said how important it is to spread their message in order to help fight ALS. So go see this film. Get to know the terrible disease behind the Ice Bucket Challenge movement, and only then will you understand. “You will leave the theater a changed person,” Brees said. “But it will be in such a better way than when you entered.”
**** out of 4 stars.
Gleason will be released in both New Orleans and national theaters on July 29, 2016.