Gleason


Steve Gleason and son.

Steve Gleason and son.

(2016) Documentary (Open Road/Amazon) Steve Gleason, Michel Varisco-Gleason, Mike Gleason, Ryan Gootee, Scott Fujita, Mike McKenzie, Kurt Warner, Drew Brees, Jesse Jackson, John Elway, Rivers Gleason, Kyle Gleason, Gail Gleason, Mike McCready, Eddie Vedder, Blair Casey, Stephen Kantrow, Paul Varisco Jr., Paul Varisco Sr., Vinnie Varisco, Kevin Dedmon, Jim Eutizzi. Directed by Clay Tweel

 

Steve Gleason was a football player. Although a star linebacker in high school and again at Washington State, he was considered undersized and the NFL essentially turned their back on him. Unwilling to give up, he went to the Indianapolis Colts’ training camp only to be let go. Then, he joined the practice squad of the New Orleans Saints and there was something about the way he played, the way he left it all out on the field on every single play that impressed the Saints coaching staff. They signed him up and he played in NOLA for seven years as a part of the special teams unit, which takes the field for kickoffs and punts.

As a Saint, he was responsible for one of the most memorable moments in team history. On September 25, 2006, the Saints took the field at the Louisiana Superdome for the first time in 21 months after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, the stadium and the team. In the first quarter with their opponents the Atlanta Falcons punting, Gleason broke through and blocked the punt which was recovered in the end zone by teammate Curtis Deloatch for a touchdown. The play brought the stadium to its feet and the city to its knees in joy. It was a symbol that not only were the Saints back, so was the city of New Orleans. They would go on to have the best season in team history to that point.

Although Gleason retired the season before his team won the Super Bowl, the respect his teammates and the organization had for him was such that he was given a Super Bowl ring but that was shortly after the devastating news that he had been afflicted by Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), more popularly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease because it was this that felled the Yankees slugger. Six weeks after the diagnosis, his wife Michel discovered she was pregnant.

Knowing that by the time his child was cognitive it was extremely unlikely he would be able to communicate as ALS attacks the neurons that control the involuntary muscular system, affecting the ability to move, speak, eat and eventually, breathe. He decided to make a series of video blogs for his child, a son named Rivers who would be born in October 2011. He would try to give his son advice about life, death, the difference between right and wrong and the importance of never giving up – things important to him but also things any father would want to pass on to their son.

]Using this footage as a backbone, documentarian Clay Tweel (Make Believe and Finders Keepers) was given extraordinary access, documenting the ex-football player’s physical progression as he is ravaged by the disease, as well as the toll it takes on his family. Wife Michel is forced to be caregiver to Steve while also being a new mom; eventually the strain overwhelms her and they add a neighbor (and self-described “hero worshipper”) Ryan Gootee to do the heavy lifting. His indefatigable attitude mirrors that of Steve himself at times.

And don’t get me wrong, Tweel absolutely refuses to paint the ex-Saint as a saint. There are times that he is literally howling in anguish at the betrayal of his body (even simple bodily functions become logistical nightmares). There are particularly heart-wrenching moments when Steve confronts his dad Mike, a genial guy but a rock-ribbed Christian whose beliefs are very much different than his son’s; in fact, Mike as a strict enough parent that his son had some resentments that percolate and bubble over while we watch (perhaps feeling a bit like voyeurs as we do) and one where he and his wife have a late night argument when she is clearly exhausted.

Gleason also is dedicated to his foundation, Team Gleason which not only helps fund ALS research but also provides the technology to ALS sufferers who can’t afford it to have more productive, fulfilling lives as well as providing “bucket list” items that patients are on a sort of deadline for; think of it as a Make-a-Wish Foundation for ALS patients making sure that they get what they need and what falls through the cracks of their insurance and government assistance. In fact, Gleason’s foundation spearheaded legislative efforts to help ALS patients get the technology they need covered under insurance and Medicare. It’s a worthy and noble cause but Gleason’s devotion to the foundation sometimes seems to supersede his dedication to his family, which disturbs Michel no end.

This is a movie that touches the human spirit and makes one proud of the species, something awfully difficult to do sometimes when all you see on the news are terrorist attacks, political hackery and mass shootings by disturbed loners with AR-15s. While I get that some critics will grouse about this being manipulative, holy crap if a story like Gleason’s can’t get to you emotionally, you really have to be something of a sociopath. Of course it’s manipulative. EVERY story is. That’s the nature of stories, particularly the true ones and this one is almost mythic in some ways when it comes to the courage and drive to live that Gleason displays and the support his family and community gives him. Personally, I thought Tweel gave a very balanced presentation of Gleason’s story, but if I’m to be manipulated, this is the way I want it to be done. At least it is emotion genuinely earned, as is the respect you’ll feel for the Gleason family and their supporters.

REASONS TO GO: There are few films that are this inspiring and uplifting. It never pulls its punches, showing Gleason’s vulnerabilities and at times, failings. Tweel keeps the talking head footage to a minimum. Cinema verité at it’s very finest.
REASONS TO STAY: At times, the film may end up being a bit too emotionally raw for some viewers.
FAMILY VALUES: There is enough foul language to net this an “R” rating.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Gleason played seven years in the NFL, he was never drafted – he signed on with the Saints as a free agent. However, he was drafted by the short-lived XFL’s Birmingham Thunderbolts as the 191st player picked in their one and only draft in 2001.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/30/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pride of the Yankees
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Florence Foster Jenkins

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The Theory of Everything


Jane and Stephen Hawking, sneakin' around.

Jane and Stephen Hawking, sneakin’ around.

(2014) Biographical Drama (Focus) Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, David Thewlis, Simon McBurney, Charlie Cox, Harry Lloyd, Emily Watson, Lucy Chappell, Charlotte Hope, Christian McKay, Abigail Cruttenden, Maxine Peake, Simon Chandler, Georg Nikoloff, Enzo Cilenti, Frank Leboeuf, Adam Godley, Guy Oliver-Watts, Alice Orr-Ewing, Nicola Victoria Buck. Directed by James Marsh

There is no doubt that Stephen Hawking is one of the greatest minds of our generation. He has redefined our thinking on how the universe works and the nature of time itself. There are many who believe he is in the same league as Einstein and Sir Isaac Newton when it comes to his effect on modern physics.

It is also well-known that he has had physical obstacles that most of us could never begin to cope with. Diagnosed with a version of ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig disease) at age 21, he was given just two years to live. In those two years he lost all motor control and eventually even his ability to speak. Still, he remains alive today – more than 50 years after his initial diagnosis.

Young Stephen Hawking (Redmayne) was a geeky, awkward, gangly sort of young man at Cambridge with plans to get his doctorate in cosmology and go on to come up with one simple, elegant equation that explains everything. In the meantime he does the same sorts of things that geeky, awkward, gangly sorts of young men have done in college for a very long time.

That is hang out with his friends, sleep in, go out drinking from time to time and have a spectacular lack of success with girls. That is, until he meets Jane Wilde (Jones) who is studying Iberian poetry. He is quite captivated with her. They are in many way polar opposites – he is drawn to science, she to the liberal arts. He is not traditionally handsome, she is a beauty by any standards. And he is a dedicated atheist, she a devout Christian member of the Church of England.

But he is warm and funny as well. His imagination takes him beyond the stars and into the way stars live and die. Even as a doctoral candidate his genius is recognized by his mentor Professor Dennis Sciama (Thewlis) as well as noted mathematician Roger Penrose (McKay). However his bright future is severely shaken by the news that he has a motor neuron disease and is only expected to live for two years, maybe a bit more. Needless to say he enters a deep depression.

But he and Jane have fallen deeply in love and have plans to marry. Certainly Stephen would understand if Jane would walk away from what can only be pain and heartache but ever-plucky like a good English rose, she refuses. Whatever happens will happen to them both and if their time together should be short, they will make the most of what they have.

But she wasn’t expecting to sign on for the long haul. Stephen, whose man parts are unaffected by the disease, fathers three children. As his condition deteriorates, she is caring for two and then a third squalling baby as well as for a husband who can’t do anything for himself. Desperate and overworked, she seeks solace from her mother (Watson) who advises her to join the Church chorus.

It turns out to be a splendid idea. The choirmaster, Jonathan Hellyer-Jones (Cox) becomes quite taken by the Hawkings’ situation and offers to help out as much as he can do. He turns out to be a godsend and he and Stephen get along famously. Hellyer-Jones, recently widowed, has begun to develop feelings for Jane and she for him. At his request, he steps back from a situation that is getting tricky.

The new therapist who helps Stephen learn to use an alphabet board (this is before he got the computerized voice that he is now famous for), a vivacious redhead named Elaine Mason (Peake) who came highly recommended develops a bond with Stephen that Jane doesn’t seem to have with him anymore. What will happen to this fairytale love story?

The operative words for this movie are the last two of the previous sentence. This is not a documentary about black holes and singularities, although some of the pioneering science that Hawking is responsible for is explained somewhat simply for most of us who simply don’t have the ability to understand the details of his work. Rather, this is a love story about two people who overcome frightening odds and share triumphs and tragedies.

Redmayne is a wonder here. Folks who are following the buzz for the upcoming Oscar nominations to be announced late next month are probably aware that many veteran industry observers feel that Redmayne is a lock for a Best Actor Oscar nomination and Jones is a serious contender for a Best Actress nomination as well. The buzz isn’t wrong. Redmayne is phenomenal, undertaking a very physical performance, literally shriveling up before our eyes going from a fairly healthy if not physically fit young man to one who is barely able to walk until he is a shell of a man, hunched over in his wheelchair and unable to support himself even in a sitting position. Redmayne spent time with dancers and ALS patients in order to get the movements and body language right. He also captures Hawkings’ delightful sense of humor.

Jones has a difficult role to play albeit one that is much less physically taxing. Hers is much more emotionally challenging, playing a woman who is being beaten down by the difficulties of her role not of wife and mother but also of nurse. Often times she feels taken for granted, cleaning up after the messes that her family makes and unable to take the time to pursue her own dreams. Jane is clearly frustrated and overwhelmed and Jones successfully conveys that to audiences. Our sympathy is with her as well as with her husband as her sacrifice takes on special resonance for those of us who are disabled who have a partner who has to shoulder more than her burden (or his).

There is a scene that resonated especially with me as a person with a degenerative condition. Stephen is having more and more difficulty walking and one afternoon Jane brings in a wheelchair. There isn’t any dialogue but it can only be an admission that the disease is winning for him and she allows him to process the situation on his own. “This is only temporary,” he says tearfully in a slurred voice. “Of course it is,” she says comforting him. With a wheelchair likely in my own future, I could relate to his sentiment.

Friends of mine have criticized the movie as being boring and perhaps from a certain point of view it is. My wife would most likely call the movie quiet, an adjective she uses a little differently than most of us. Perhaps the expectations of those going in is for something a little bit more science-y and this is not that movie. It is, as I mentioned before, a love story. One that possesses no loud crescendos, no cosmic triumphs but just sheer will power to make things work and a complete faith that two people have in each other to get them through a severely challenging situation.

It is an inspiring story but I don’t think it is meant to be in the rah-rah sense. Rather, this is just two people getting on with it. The ending to the movie is neither happy nor sad but it is the stuff of everyday life, even if both of the parties in the relationship happen to be extraordinary.

REASONS TO GO: Award-worthy performances by Redmayne and Jones. Some sequences inspire wonder. Is more of a love story than a physics textbook.
REASONS TO STAY: Some sequences are a little dry. Easily offended religious sorts may take umbrage at Hawking’s frankly stated atheism.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes and some sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: It took screenwriter Anthony McCarten three years to convince Jane Hawking to allow a film version of her book to be made; it took another seven years for him to get the movie made.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/15/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Beautiful Mind
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Horrible Bosses 2