Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 36 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 1; Language 2; Sex/Nudity
Our star rating (1-5): 5
If I speak, my pain is not assuaged, and if I forbear, how much of it leaves me? Surely now God has worn me out; he has made desolate all my company.
And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
Director Clay Tweel’s new documentary reminds me of a film that I have long admired–the 1993 film My Life in which Michael Keaton plays a dying husband who decides not to go “gently into that good night.” With his wife pregnant, he channels his rage into the making of a video about his life so that his son will know about him after he is gone. That is exactly what retired NFL player Steve Gleason does, except that he calls upon far more help than Keaton’s character had—this documentary includes not only his own footage, but some marvelous NFL film clips of his glory days, plus that shot by others, culminating with Mr. Tweel bringing everything together in a marvelous way. This is a film aiming at both heart and head, and scoring a double bull’s eye—or, given Gleason’s past, I should say, a touchdown and extra kicking points.
The film’s first few minutes provide a quick overview of Gleason’s adult life, from the sports act he was best known for to his marriage, and then to the first symptoms of his disease. On September 25, 2006, while playing for the New Orleans Saints in the first game at the Superdome after the terrible Hurricane Katrina, the quick-footed Gleason blocked a punt by the Atlanta Falcons, thus enabling his team to score a touchdown and go on to win the game. The fans went wild, his dangerous block filling them with a hope and resolution that spilled over from their team’s game victory to their efforts to rebuild their ravaged city.
Though born in the Pacific northwest, Gleason and his wife, artist Michel Varisco Gleason decided to stay in New Orleans when he retired in 2008. Three years later, after consulting a doctor for the cause of the strange sensations in his legs, he is told that he has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. The doctor explains that his brain will be unable to communicate with his muscles, and that paralysis will set in, followed by death within 2 to 5 years.
Steve decides to make a video journal to leave for their child, as well as to use to spread the word about ALS, a disease that has shortened the lives of many professional athletes. While he can navigate, the couple also decide to travel and engage in physical activities while he can. Even when he is forced to use a wheel chair, he goes skydiving. He and his family set up an organization they name Team Gleason that will raise money and spread knowledge of the thus far incurable disease. At a meeting with organizational experts he says that they have decided to focus on the here and now rather than the distant future, meaning that their funds will not go to research but to dealing with victims needing help with medical equipment and such.
Steve Gleason sees his son at birth, holding him, and later at home the two riding around in his wheel chair, the infant, then little boy, expressing his joy. Thus the film shows the rise of the infant in strength and mobility while the adult declines in strength, and not only mobility, but even the ability to speak. Gleason says that he will use technology, and he does, eventually forced to use his eyes focused upon the letters on his computer screen, thus forming words spoken through a voice box. He lives up to the motto of Team Gleason, “No White Flags.” Filmed over a period of 5 years, there are many tender scenes of father and son inter-acting, so that we hope the now 5 year-old son will have his own memories of his father, as well as this wonderful documentary.
The motto is exemplified too in that the former athlete does not stay hidden away in his home, but makes frequent public appearances around the country spreading knowledge about the disease and raising money for the cause. He visits Washington where he meets President Obama. He is there also to appear before a Congressional committee because Medicare has refused to help ALS victims pay for their expensive speech equipment. To everyone’s delight Congress does pass the Steve Gleason Bill that changes this.
The film also shows well the human cost of the disease to Steve, Michel, and family. He argues at times with his religiously conservative father Mike, the latter at one time, despite Michel’s misgivings, persuading Steve to try faith healing. When this does not work, they argue about faith and God’s will. Michel, too, at times is driven to the brink of her endurance as ALS increasingly destroys her husband’s body. When Steve loses control of his bowels, they bring in Judy Robert, a plucky nurse who can literally deal unflinchingly with “shit.”
There are times when Steve’s spirit sinks under the weight of the pain that afflicts him. At one point he almost cries, “I have no faith to heal. I have no hope. I want to punch something, but I can’t. All I an do is scream.” As the suffering increases the burdens thrust upon Michel, there is an especially powerful exchange between the couple. They are appropriately on opposite sides of the bedroom, Steve talking through his voice box of how he feels she must be fed up with him and his suffering. He says that she no longer looks at him, and asks the unanswerable question of what can he do for her. There is none of the apostle Paul’s “boasting” in the suffering they share. Indeed, as Michel seems to be increasingly imprisoned by the 24-hour care for her husband, we can perhaps better understand the horrible words that Job’s wife hurled at her suffering husband, “Curse God, and die”—but Michel refrains from such spiteful words, and so does the spiritually perplexed Steve. It is a tribute to his character that Steve is not totally self-absorbed, with him telling Michel, “I’m wearing you down to the bones.”
Along with such painfully dramatic moments there is also a good deal of humor, both from Steve and Michel. This no doubt helps them get through some difficult situations. Their neighbor Blair Casey, who visits frequently, is convinced by Michel to give up his job and help her full time. He says that he had to do it or she would have kicked him in the nuts. We see Casey in dozens of scenes with his wheelchair-bound charge, the son Steve has named Rivers held by one or the other.
This is a film that makes us laugh, cry, and cheer, often at the same time. It does not try to do everything, however. Except for a one-time mention by Mike, Gleason does not go into the relationship between ASL and football. For this you can see the fine Will Smith film Concussion or read the on-line Atlantic Magazine article by Olga Khazan “The Complicated Connection Between Football and ALS at
http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/06/the-messy-connection-between-football-and-als/488681/. Also, I wondered why there were no scenes with Steve’s mother. Where was she? Or has she died, and if so, why no mention of her death? (Or did I miss this?)
You might think I have included too much in the above, but I have only scratched the surface of this stirring film. In both the documentary and the fictional My Life we see how resilient the human spirit can be when faced with devastation. Steve Gleason wrestles with his father’s too simplistic faith as he tries to keep alive his own. His anguish can lead us to reflect upon our own questioning of a supposedly all-powerful and loving God who seems indifferent to intense human suffering. We see the absolute necessity of human community for dealing with the suffering individual. This film goes well with Paul’s words in Galatians 6:2, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”
Steve is also dealing with his relationship with his father who, though letting him down during his childhood when he and Steve’s mother were fighting constantly, is now trying to make up for this by giving his support whenever he can. This relationship obviously bothers Steve because when he interviews Eddie Vedder of the group Pearl Jam, he asks the musician about his own lack of relationship with his father.
This is a must see film, one that probably will make VP’s “Top Ten” list for this year. You do not need to be a football fan to enjoy it. Just open your heart and let the film work its magic.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the August issue of VP.