Return to Mount Kennedy


There are all sorts of ways to conquer peaks.

(2019) Documentary (1091Bob Whittaker, Chris Kennedy, Eddie Vedder, Malcolm Taylor, Senator Robert Kennedy, Jim Whittaker, Mark Arm, Bruce Pavitt, Matt Lukin, Steve Turner, Leif Whittaker, Dan Peters, Dave Hahn, Blanche Montbroussous, Eric Becker, Brian Jones, Dr. Michael Ross, Rich Hayward. Directed by Eric Becker

 

Often, we compare the greatest obstacles in our lives to mountain peaks. Scaling those peaks is used as a metaphor for overcoming those obstacles. Like our own limitations, the loftiest peaks are often the ones in our own mind; once we get around to climbing them, we find they aren’t so tall after all.

Bob Whittaker lived under an enormous shadow. His father Jim was the first American to scale Mt. Everest and was a national hero. He also co-founded the REI sporting goods chain and was the CEO there until he retired a few years ago. He is named for one of his father’s closest friends; Senator Robert Kennedy, the brother of the former President and former Attorney General during his brother’s administration.

In 1965, the tallest unscaled peak in North America was Mount Kennedy in Canada. As the peak was named for his brother, then-Senator Kennedy thought that it would be fitting if he were to accompany the first team to scale the peak. Even though he had no previous mountain climbing experience, the Senator was in safe hands as one of the leaders of the expedition was Jim Whittaker. It was there that the two formed a bond that would last until the Senator’s tragic assassination in Los Angeles just three years later. Bobby Kennedy’s son Chris speaks affectionately of Jim Whittaker taking on some of his late father’s duties, helping guide the young boy into manhood.

But Jim was away a lot during Bob’s childhood and the two grew estranged. Bob became a part of the grunge scene in Seattle in the 80s and 90s, becoming road manager for the indie rock legends Mudhoney. A somewhat wild and personable young man, he became the face of the Seattle scene for many. To this day he counts among his friends such luminaries as Eddie Vedder. Bob would eventually become road manager for REM for a dozen years before moving on to all sorts of other bands.

But rock music is a young man’s game and as Bob grew older, he began to pull away from the glamour of the music scene. He began to appreciate the joys of the wilderness. He became active in creating and maintaining green spaces in and around Seattle, and then in Washington state. Like his father before him, he became an avid conservationist and outdoorsman.

As the 50th anniversary of his father’s trek up Mount Kennedy with his good friend Robert Kennedy loomed, Bob began to think about that accomplishment and what it meant to his family. He decided that it would be a good opportunity to reconnect with his brother Leif, who had followed in his father’s footsteps and become a respected climber. Chris Kennedy was also invited and the son of the late Senator jumped at the chance even though he, like his father before him, had no mountain climbing experience.

The documentary tells the parallel stories of the two expeditions to the mountain in alternating fashion, entwining the story of the elder Whittaker and the late Presidential candidate with that of their sons. Legacy plays a big part in the movie’s theme; for all three of the men, their father’s achievements are inspiration to do something important with their lives. While at times it is a burden to them – as it is to most sons – it is also a source of pride to them as well – as it is to most sons.

The movie has almost a schizophrenic nature; there are the serene, wild places of the mountains and the Pacific Northwest and there’s the loud grunge, rock and roll excess of the music scene. Both make up different sides of Bob Whittaker and both are equally valid, even if he is emphasizing the mountains more than the music these days. It couldn’t have been an easy path from one to the other; it certainly isn’t the path most take in that direction but it seems to have worked for Whittaker.

But it isn’t Bob Whittaker’s movie alone, even if he is in most respects the central character. It is about family, first and foremost; for sons paying tribute to fathers. Its friends gone but not forgotten. It also gives us a glimpse at Bobby Kennedy and even as brief and superficial a glimpse as it is, it makes one sad to think of all the good he might have accomplished had he not been murdered for no real reason.

I don’t know that this is necessarily inspirational. I didn’t feel moved to recreate my father’s greatest triumphs by watching this but I was given a certain feeling, one of knowing that like Bob Whittaker, Leif Whittaker and Chris Kennedy, I’m walking in the footsteps on the trail my own father blazed. Being reminded of that may not necessarily set the world on fire, but it is important – and comforting – nonetheless.

REASONS TO SEE: Bob Whittaker’s enthusiasm is infectious. The stories from the first climb are fascinating.
REASONS TO AVOID: Loses a bit of focus during the last third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and a bit of drinking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mount Kennedy lies in the St. Elias Mountain Range located in Kluane National Park, in Yukon, Canada. The peak was named for the slain U.S. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy in 1964 as a tribute by the nation of Canada.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vimeo, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/15/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Free Solo
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Warrior Queen of Jhansi

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