Despite what the headline may have you thinking, Gleason is not a comedy. Not at all. But it does have a good amount of laughs for a documentary chronicling a man’s deteriorating health from ALS. Directed by Clay Tweel, it’s a film that fits perfectly alongside his previous feature, Finders Keepers (that one a collaboration with Bryan Carberry), because it looks like it’s just going to be a complete tearjerker, yet it also showcases a ton of humor. Finders Keepers had inversely appeared to be just a strange and funny true story, yet it also manages to involve a lot of tragedy. They’re the yin and yang of Tweel’s continuing brilliance as a filmmaker.
The doc’s title refers to Steve Gleason, former safety for the New Orleans Saints. While a professional footballer, he was best known for a symbolic play during the Saints’ first game back in town following Hurricane Katrina. After retiring from the NFL in 2011, he became a hero of another kind. He was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and has gone on to become one of the most important figures in the fight and the raising of awareness for the disease (the creator of the ice bucket challenge is probably just above him) in recent years. Because Steve began documenting his struggle himself from the start, Gleason is able to take us through a five year story as it happened, showing rather than telling via footage Tweel refers to as “experiential verite.”
Part of that initial self-documentation was for the sake of Steve’s son. He and his wife, Michel, became pregnant around the same time the ALS diagnosis came in, and he started making video journals directed at his then-unborn child knowing that he wouldn’t be around for too long after his arrival. It’s a devastating concept that we’ve seen in related forms in such heartbreaking nonfiction films as Dear Zachary and the Oscar-nominated short Joanna, and it could have easily just been as straightforward as a dedication, while also simultaneously showing a father declining in health as his son advances in age. Another inspiring but mostly just emotionally crushing film where impending death overshadows everything else.
Does anyone really want to go out and see a documentary that’s going to make them cry all the way through, that’s going to make them feel so awful? And if you don’t know anything about Steve and don’t check Wikipedia during the course of the film, chances are you’re going to expect that it concludes with his death (spoiler: he’s still alive as of this writing). No matter how important the subject matter, it’s unfair to an audience to put them only through pain. Gleason doesn’t do that. Tweel is a director who might make you cry all the way through, but not every tear is the sad kind. You’ll experience a good balance of tears of joy and from laughter mixed in, as well.
The humor arises primarily from Steve and Michel and occasionally their caretakers and friends, but Tweel knows how to pull it out and punch it at just the right moments. At one point in the film, Steve is having a very difficult time and it turns out it’s because he’s been unable to move his bowels. The sequence, which has to be the most brutally candid and hilarious depiction of an actual enema ever in cinema, ends with Steve making such an unexpectedly raunchy comment that you can’t help but explosively weep in amusement. That would be enough, but Tweel goes even further, ending the scene with a comical cut that extends its climax.
Funniest of all, though, is Michel, who is consistently blunt and profane in her commentary, in the best and the worst of it. “This is a motherfucker,” she says of the situation after many years. She admits (seemingly with no pun intended), how she has no desire to be a saint. Nobody appears to act falsely for the cameras, maybe because for the majority of the filming it was done from a very casual and intimate perspective, a lot of it shot by two guys (Ty Minton-Small and David Lee) who moved in and helped with Steve’s care as they recorded his life. This was way before Tweel came on board as director (alongside regular producer Seth Gordon), and while the close-knit familial approach proved perfect for what was captured, having an outsider enter and compile that footage proved perfect for its not coming across as too personal.
Gleason is, to be certain, a doozy of doc, an emotional merry-go-round that rotates its affects. I went in totally ignorant of who Steve is and wound up caring about him and his family and his Team Gleason foundation and the people it helps and even, in another funny moment, Eddie Vedder. It’s an upper and a downer. But more than all that it’s a very frank film about disease and devotion and what makes a hero and what makes a father and what makes a proper document of all these things, with respect to the subjects and the audience. At this point, I still believe Tweel can do no wrong.
This review was originally published during the Sundance Film Festival on January 31, 2016.