“Great moments, are born from great opportunity,” exhorts Kurt Russell in the movie Miracle, borrowing from the real head coach of the 1980 US Olympic hockey team, Herb Brooks. As Russell’s passion grows from a quiet rolling thunder to a fierce snarl he intones, “this is your time. Now go out there and take it!” Brooks’ team of American college kids would achieve an impossible victory over the vastly superior professional Soviet Russian team and enter US athletic lore as the “Miracle on Ice” and ever since has been an inspiration for teams overcoming all odds to achieve greatness.
Likewise, when Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans in 2005, it temporarily left the Superdome in shambles and New Orleans Saints without a place to play home games. In 2006, when they finally returned home, it was an opportunity for the city to celebrate its rebuilding and unify the city around their home team Saints. The play forever remembered from their first game back happened only 90 seconds into the game when safety Steve Gleason broke through the Atlanta Falcons punt formation and blocked Michael Koenen’s punt which resulted in a Saints touchdown. The play symbolized the city’s rebirth and Gleason instantly became a team legend.
The documentary by Clay Tweel, Gleason, details Steve’s moment of greatness, however, this one moment is not the subject of his greatest achievement. Only a handful years after the Saints triumphant return to the Superdome and Steve’s eventual retirement from football in 2008, Steve is diagnosed with ALS, a condition leaving a typical person with two to five years to live. Shortly after his diagnosis, his wife, Michel, finds out she is pregnant with their first child. With only a few years to live, Steve’s hard-working ethic inspires him to fight ALS and commit to living.
From skydiving and backpacking to a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the glacial ridge in Alaska, Steve refuses to let ALS defeat him. Throughout the film, even as ALS begins to take away his physical ability and cause mental frustration, Steve becomes an inspiration through his commitment to living his limited time left the fullest and his attitude becomes infectious. With the help of former Saints teammates, as well as his wife and other family members, they start Team Gleason, an organization building awareness for ALS and raising money to help other sufferers of the disease live out their dreams. In one of the many tear-duct clearing moments of the film Steve and his wife call another man with ALS and reveal their organization has bought him and his family tickets to go on a two-week trip to Italy. Their commitment to inspiring others shows how love and life can triumph even in the midst of suffering and death.
Despite their creation of an organization and commitment to filming these special on-screen moments, multiple times during the movie both Steve and his wife say they don’t want to be seen as saints, but as humans living life. The humanity and raw emotion of Gleason are it’s greatest strengths and takes the documentary from good to one of the best of the year. Steve was a terrific athlete with a zest for life, but as the movie progresses you watch Steve’s health deteriorate. Even before his son Rivers is born, he has begun to lose his ability to walk and speech has even become difficult and slurred. Later in the film, the Saints erect statue of Steve’s blocked punt, but ten minutes after the dedication ceremony he soils himself and his wheelchair. The story is a polarity of man inspiring thousands of people and a man slowly dying from a terminal illness.
Late in the film, Steve muses on how ALS has given him the gift of having years to think about his own mortality. Gleason is not only a profoundly human film but also one of existential contemplation and spiritual exploration. It addresses questions of who God is and why he would let Steve suffer and die with so much life in front of him and a son he cannot love the way he should. Steve’s father, whom Steve has committed to reconciling with after his diagnosis, is a Christian man who wrestles with this as much as his son. From the first third to the final third, Steve and his dad share bare their struggles and argue, weep, and pray to find those answers. Never exposited on-screen, we see God in their shared moments of grief and anger and as their father-son relationship heals.
Gleason is spiritual, emotional, uplifting, and deeply personal, but at its core, it is a story of a father and son. The impetus for Steve and Michel to record his life on video was to pass on the best things of himself to his son, Rivers. Their son’s name, “fuels fire,” as Steve explains. “Wood fuels fire, which comes from trees, which is given life by the rivers.” Rivers is the fire that fuels this movie and inspires one man to inspire, to live, and to love with purpose. This movie will light a fire in your heart to do the same with your life and inspire true greatness.