Steve Gleason is the kind of sports figure that transcends the usual generic hero labels people in his profession are saddled with. A safety in the NFL for eight seasons, he was the kind of guy who was supposed to be on the cover of magazines and cereal boxes. But then Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) robbed him of everything that once looked publicly like his identity: the athleticism, the ability to be as adventurous as he always used to be. Or so it seemed, anyway. Once he lost everything, that's when the real hero emerged. "Gleason," director Clay Tweel's film about this phoenix-like New Orleans Saint is about accepting one's powerlessness and finding strength in it. Steve finds his physical limitations but never once accepts that they will be lasting tolls on his spirit. He gets back up again and again and again. (To read Matt Zoller Seitz's 3 1/2-star review of "Gleason," click here.)
When I spoke to Tweel, the thing he was quick to point out was that the film, for him, was in the role of Steve's wife Michel as caregiver and partner on a journey that may have had no satisfying end point; it's Michel who empowers Steve, helps him get up and has to shoulder the majority of the work as parent to their son Rivers. In person, the fire within Michel is overpowering. On film there's a certain understanding that she'll keep doing the right thing, keep being superhuman in her care for her family. But when she's across a table from you, you see that she's a human being. For a human being to have kept fighting when all seemed darkest is beyond inspiring. It's Herculean.
I spoke to Varisco, Tweel and producer Scott Fujita, one of Steve's closest friends and colleagues, about what it means to be both heroic and very human, how they found the film from thousands of hours of footage and what it means to put your life on movie screens.