Not A Touchdown

A doc about a dying athlete ducks tough questions

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Gleason
RPL Film Theatre
Sept. 2-4
2 out of 5

Steve Gleason was a linebacker for the New Orleans Saints until 2007 He was heading towards a dream retirement with his wife, and they were planning to start a family.

Gleason’s plans were unceremoniously demolished when he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig disease (ALS) just four years after stepping off the gridiron.

About at the same time, the former player found out he was going to become a father. Given that ALS patients have a life expectancy of less than three years on average, Gleason started recording messages for his unborn son.

Unbeknownst to Steve, the videos would become the spine of a documentary about his life.

A by-the-numbers “triumph of the human spirit” kind of flick, Gleason has some elements in common with a better doc that opened earlier this year, Weiner. Just as in the film about the disgraced congressman (who, judging from last week’s headlines, is still busily sabotaging himself), the doc’s most interesting character is not the figure front and center, but the woman standing behind him. The tension between the physically deteriorating Gleason and his overwhelmed wife Michel is palpable and filmmaker Clay Tweel doesn’t look away.

But as unflinching as his look at domesticity is, Tweel avoids even hinting at the possibility that professional football was the cause of Gleason’s ALS (allegedly, NFL players are four times more likely to be affected by the condition).

On top of that, one member of the Gleason team was punted from the production for releasing recordings of an NFL coach asking his players to injure opponents.

The film goes out of its way to bring up Gleason’s foundation, an institutions dedicated to improve the lives of those affected by ALS. A commendable effort, no doubt, but this emphasis makes the whole endeavor feel like advertising. Another red flag is that NFL teams have donated to Team Gleason and the Players Association has partnered with the organization.

It’s easy to empathize with Steve Gleason. The film may even bring you to tears. But for a documentary four years in the works, it had plenty of time to tackle the hard questions. By choosing not to, the end product feels disingenuous at best.