Gleason (2016) / Documentary
MPAA Rated: R for language
Running Time: 110 min.
Cast: Steve Gleason, Michel Varisco-Gleason, Rivers Varisco-Gleason, Mike Gleason
Small role: Scott Fujita, Eddie Vedder
Director: Clay Tweel
Screenplay: Clay Tweel
Review published December 2, 2016
Gleason is a documentary film around the trials and tribulations of Steve Gleason, a former NFL player who retired from the game in 2008, then was diagnosed with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, aka Lou Gehrig's disease) in 2011, concurrent to learning of the pregnancy of his wife Michel with their first child. It's a disease that has no cure, and those who are afflicted by it usually die within 2-5 years after diagnosis. The sufferer's motor skills begin to erode, eventually losing them altogether, including the ability to speak without technological assistance.
Knowing that the odds for survival were bleak, and recovery completely unheard of, Gleason sets about recording his life with the assistance of a couple of associates, and begins to make video logs, while he still has a voice, imparting his philosophies on life, love, and fatherhood for his young son to watch at a day when he can understand, appreciate and take them to heart most. It's something he didn't receive as much as he would like from his own father, who worried about himself much more and expected his sons to think and act just like him, and Steve both wants (and, to some extent, internally fears) that his son will have his own mind about things.
Director Clay Tweel, who sifted through about 1300 hours of footage to winnow down into a sub 2-hour movie, finds the narrative thread of fathers and sons to build upon for the thrust of this potent and heartbreaking documentary experience that will likely leave no faces dry by the end. Steve, in a desperate state to get better, consents to go to a faith healer for his religious father, who seems to suggest that his son's lack of faith may be the root cause of the ailment to begin with. Watching Steve try to run with reduced motor skills, then stumble, is heartbreaking. That heartbreak is further compounded by the scene later of Steve's toddler son, Rivers, also running and stumbling, causing us to muse on the fact that as Rivers gets stronger and more confident with his body, Steve's is eroding.
Although the effects of ALS on Gleason is the main reason for making the film, Tweel concentrates more on drawing out who Gleason is independent of the disease -- his character, his resolve, his emotional connections with family and friends, and even some of his flaws. One of the things he and his wife Michel channel their energy into while they can is a charity organization in order to help others afflicted with ALS get the assistance they so desperately need, especially when Medicare and Medicaid won't cover the costs of the vast expenses required for speech technology assistance.
The other thing that Gleason showcases that we often don't get to see is that debilitating diseases like ALS take their toll on more than the one person who has it. We watch wife Michel go from a relatively happy and energetic woman to one that looks like she can barely muster the energy to get up in the morning, having to spend all her days and nights caring for a young person in Rivers, while her husband contributes to his care less and less, ultimately becoming even needier than his toddler son in gaining her time and attention for his basic necessities.
It's perhaps a bit disjointed in its patchwork way of putting all of the pieces together, story wise, while you may see better documentaries from a technical standpoint, you likely won't many more moving emotionally than Gleason. While other films have tackled similar subject matter of a parent with a terminal disease leaving recordings for a child to come in a narrative form in such films as My Life an My Life Without Me, nothing comes close to the devastation in seeing such things devolve to utter heartbreak first hand.
©2016 Vince Leo