sports gazette

OSCARS WEEK: 'Gleason' Review

Courtesy of BFI
Published: 20 Feb 2017

'Gleason' is an emotionally devastating and heartfelt documentary that traces Steve Gleason's ongoing battle with ALS.

Steve Gleason, despite many assertations that he was too small to play the game, spent nine years as a defensive back in the NFL.

His football career is best known for the punt he blocked in the opening moments of the Saints first game back in the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina; a play simply remembered now as 'Rebirth'. He retired in 2008 as a cult hero.

Three years later, in 2011, he was diagnosed with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), and six weeks later, he and his wife Michel, found out that she was pregnant with their first child. 

With 'Gleason', director Clay Tweel manages to expertly assemble over four years of footage to craft a harrowing portrait of Gleason's life from his diagnosis, through to present day.

Tweel takes a very direct approach to assembling this documentary, making it abundantly clear that nothing is off-limits as he details the progression of the devastating disease. 

As the documentary explains early on, ALS causes the brain to slowly lose "the ability to communicate with the muscles", and utilising footage that is predominantly collected from video journals Gleason made for his unborn son, Tweel is able to intimately capture the excruciating implications that diagnosis has on both Steve and his family in their daily lives.

Due to the nature of how the film originated, with the imminent arrival of Gleason's unborn son, the film is inherently concerned with the relationships between fathers and sons. These relationships drive the film.

Steve struggles to come to terms with addressing his unborn son through video blogs, knowing he will have to raise his child without the physical aspects of a father-son relationship so many take for granted. Steve also explores his relationship with his own father, who himself has to deal with the reality that he is likely to live past the death of his son.

Truly though, this is a story of defiance. A story of a family who refuse to have their lives defined by a disease. 

As Gleason's wife, Michel, admits late in the film, "I don’t want to be a saint, I just want to be a real person”, and that is ultimately what makes the film so powerful. These are real people, struggling and fighting to live with the terrifying circumstances that have forced them to completely transform their lives.

What sets it apart is the family's raw emotion, determination and their passion to make the absolute most of everything they have. At one point Steve remarks, "I believe my future is bigger than my past", and his family would surely back that sentiment.

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