When I first watched Gleason, at the London Film Festival back in October, there was barely anyone there. “Fair enough,” I thought. It was after all, a mid-week, lunchtime showing, and a documentary about an American football player, who few Brits will have ever heard of. By the end of the film though, the dearth of fellow audience members became a lot more saddening, because the few of us who’d been there had witnessed something truly special.
So let me tell you about Steve Gleason. About as far from the old “dumb jock” cliché as you could get, Gleason is smart and sensitive, thoughtful and funny. It’s hard to imagine anyone not warming to him straight away.
As a player for the New Orleans Saints, he became a hero to many when he “blocked the punt” of the Atlanta Falcons. Now if you’re anything like me, you will have no idea what that means. And to be honest with you, after the film explains it, I still had no idea. But, it doesn’t linger on the point; a knowledge of American football is not a prerequisite for watching this film. Just take it on faith, Steve Gleason blocking the punt was a big deal.
Gleason had been retired from professional football for a few years when he received the devastating diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a motor neuron disease more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. ALS is a progressive illness that gradually robs the sufferer of the ability to move, and eventually breathe, and as such, it kills most of its victims. What makes this diagnosis even more cruel is that a few weeks afterwards, he finds out that his wife Michel is pregnant. And so, unsure if he’s going to live to see his child grow up, Gleason makes a video diary for his son.
It sounds like a devastating watch, and it often is. ALS is a brutal disease, and it seems all the more tragic when it strikes someone who had made their living from pushing their body to extremes. The documentary is unswervingly honest; there isn’t one point of the movie where it seems that anything is being glossed over. Some scenes are excruciating. At one point in the film, Steve’s father brings him to a faith healer, much to the fury of Michel. Of course it doesn’t work, but for one brief moment, Steve believes it will, and it is agonizing to witness.
The hardest part to watch, is the progression of the illness; we see Steve go from full strength, to wobbly and slurring, to wheelchair bound and unable to speak, at a pace that feels dizzying. To see the deterioration take place so rapidly in front of your eyes is disturbing, but it just adds to the intensity of emotion that Gleason provokes.
A newborn baby is hard enough to care for, but Michel also has to look after her husband, who by the time his son is born can do as little for himself as the baby. The relationship between the couple gets severely strained, and there were times where I felt awkward watching; what happens is so personal, it doesn’t feel right to be viewing it on a big screen in a theater with strangers. But the film is committed to showing all the effects of ALS, both physical and emotional, and that’s just what it does.
What makes Gleason bearable is that Steve, Michel and Blair (Steve’s carer), have such vibrant, unyielding senses of humor. In their darkest hours, laughter is never far away, and it often stems from the most surprising sources; one of the most entertaining scenes is when Steve is receiving an enema. It’s a cliché, but is apt nonetheless — this film is a genuine emotional roller-coaster. The tears and the laughter work together to create a film that’s so powerful and raw, by the time it’s finished you feel like you’ve really been through something big.
Despite the unimaginable pain that the Gleason family go through, the film manages to be uplifting. Whilst there’s no conquering ALS, at least not yet, Steve, Michel and their family and friends do their best to cope with it, with buckets of good humor and admirable honesty. I’m so glad it’s getting a UK release; Gleason is a film that deserves the widest audience possible.