Director: Clay Tweel
Cast: Steve Gleason, Mike Gleason, Scott Fujita, Michel Varisco-Gleason
Running Time: 110 mins
Following its world premiere at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, GLEASON makes its UK premiere at the 60th BFI London Film Festival.
GLEASON tells the story of former New Orleans Saints football player Steve Gleason and his battle with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a rare and incurable degenerative disease that slowly robs him of his motor functions including his breathing. Filmed over the course of five years, the documentary chronicles the progressive stages in Gleason’s disease and the toll it takes on his family.
The story starts back in 2011 with Gleason experiencing a twitching pain in his arms, head and back. At the age of 34, the former football star, best known for blocking a punt at the first New Orleans Saints home game after Hurricane Katrina in 2006, is diagnosed with ALS. Six weeks later, he finds out his wife Michel is pregnant. Realizing that ALS will rob him of the faculties to be a proper father, Gleason decides to start a video blog for his unborn son Rivers, profiling his experiences with the illness and offering his son fatherly advice while he still has the ability to do so.
Frank, harrowing and incredibly heartbreaking, GLEASON is an honest and raw look at a how a family deals with a crisis. Using Gleason’s video diaries as a backbone, director Clay Tweel delivers an intimate portrayal of Gleason’s physical hardship and disability in real-time chronology, as well as its impact on his family.
Every aspect of Gleason’s degenerative disease is tackled. We watch as ALS begins to ravage his body, taking away muscle movement, speech, the control of his bowels and eventually his speech and ability to breath. It is a messy, emotionally charged, and consistently pummeling affair.
Through all of this pain and heartbreak is his wife Michel, who is forced to become the caregiver as well as a new mum to their son Rivers. Michel and Rivers feature heavily in the documentary as Gleason’s disease shapes their family life. Michel struggles with her own heartache at seeing the man she loves transformed from the pinnacle of physical fitness to being unable to do anything on his own.
But what makes GLEASON so emotionally affecting is that it is incredibly honest. The film doesn’t shy away from showing the heart-wrenching moments, such as when Steve confronts his devoutly religious father Mike whose beliefs are very different than his son’s. Another heartbreaking scene is the late night argument between Steve and Michel in which Steve uses his computer to tell his clearly exhausted wife that she lacks compassion. Tweel lingers on those moments to paint the truly horrifying and saddening picture and it is this emotional centre from which the film radiates.
More importantly, the film shines a light on this incredibly horrible disease. Gleason is dedicated to his foundation, Team Gleason, which not only helps fund ALS research but also provides the technology to ALS sufferers. It’s a worthy and noble cause even if Gleason’s devotion to the foundation sometimes seems to supersede his dedication to his family.
GLEASON is not an easy film to watch (make sure you have some tissues handy) but it is a film that touches the human spirit. In the modern hustle-and-bustle of the 21st century, it puts life into perspective. It is sad and emotionally affecting but it’s also the most important films you see this year.
GLEASON makes its UK premiere at the 60th BFI London Film Festival on 9 October.
This review was originally written for Frankly My Dear UK