By Lorna Baker
Today’s review is of a well-celebrated documentary from around the festival circuit including the London Film Festival.
Back in the summer of 2014, the ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’ became a huge internet phenomenon; raising money and awareness for MND (Motor Neurone Disease) or as it’s commonly known in the US as ALS.
Gleason deals with one man’s diagnosis and deterioration from the disease, plus the impact it has on his relationships with his wife and infant son.
Steve Gleason is an ex NFL player for the New Orleans Saints American football team. In 2011, three years after retiring from the sport, he started to develop systems that led to the diagnosis of ALS, a terminal disease that robs the sufferer of the ability to use muscles and eventually the ability to breathe. Just four months after diagnosis, Steve’s loving wife Michel discovers that she’s pregnant.
This documentary, directed by Clay Tweel, peers into the life of two very honest and open people in Steve and Michel; it covers how each of them deals with the reality of a life with ALS and the eventuality of Steve’s premature death. This film is one of the most powerful documentaries that I’ve seen in years.
Told mainly through the medium of home video, Steve wants to leave a video journal for his baby son, for the eventual point where he is no longer around. This cinema vérité style of filming offers a realistic insight into the life of an ALS suffer and his family. The truth of the condition and its fast-deterioration is often shocking and undignified, but Steve never fails to inspire you with his desire to help others with the condition, and to provide lasting memories for his son Rivers.
On the outset, this film may seem depressing; showing the suffering of a man who was once strong and a huge hero to the people of New Orleans. However, you end this film feeling uplifted and life affirmed. Steve, despite being given a terminal prognosis, wants to live and to help others live, with his charitable foundation offering amazing adventures to people with ALS.
This is not a sports movie, it’s a film about an ordinary man and his wife, and how they handle the worst of what life throws at them. It is unflinching in its coverage of the pair, showing some of their darkest moments, where they have resentment and anger towards each other. It’s these moments that add the emotional sucker punch.
At one point in the film, Steve describes the film as a thing all about a father and son. ALS forces Steve to confront the relationship he has with his own father and deal with their differences. Faith plays a major part in both of their lives, but their differing beliefs cause an argument, where perhaps the most truthful of their exchanges take place. It was hard to hold back the tears during this part, certainly they could not.
The film is skilfully edited, not an easy task given the 1500 hours of raw footage, but it gives us a moment to pause and reflect on what we’ve seen and heard. It’s not a slick movie, but it shouldn’t be. It needs to be authentic otherwise it would not be an accurate portrayal of their lives. The music, whilst not often present, adds an emotional and ultimately uplifting sense to the film; culminating in some of the family’s sweetest moments over the credits.
Essentially this film is about family, through the struggles and moments of love. It’s a heart-breaking watch, but it feels like necessary viewing; shedding light on a little understood condition, but one which has such a dramatic impact on peoples’ lives. Steve recently said on social media on the 6th anniversary of his diagnosis “Six years after being handed a terminal diagnosis, know this… I am happy”. If that isn’t inspiring, then I don’t know what is.
Cineroom’s Rating: 5 Stars
Gleason is out in cinemas from 17th March 2017