'Augie': Film Review
James Keach's documentary relates the story of Augie Nieto, a fitness industry pioneer who was diagnosed with ALS when he was 47 years old.
The recent passing of Stephen Hawking lends a poignant timeliness to the release of James Keach's (Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me) documentary about Augie Nieto. Nieto, a fitness entrepreneur who revolutionized the industry with his product The Lifecycle, was at the peak of his professional success when he was afflicted with ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig's disease, at age 47. Diagnosed in 2005 with a condition that in most cases leads to death within two to three years, Nieto is still going strong. Augie's Quest to Cure ALS, an organization he founded, has raised more than $60 million for ALS research. Augie relates his inspiring tale in deeply personal, moving terms.
There is, of course, no small irony in the fact that Nieto not only made his fortune through fitness but was a devoted athlete and adventurer who lived life to the fullest. He was also a hard-driving workaholic whose devotion to his business came at the expense of his wife and children.
Communicating through an electronic speech-generating device, Nieto makes clear that his condition hasn't affected his sense of humor. His devoted wife Lynne points out, "Inappropriate humor is the only thing that's got us through this," and numerous friends and associates confirm that they're on his email list to receive dirty jokes.
The doc briefly chronicles Nieto's life before his diagnosis, including his high school years during which he lost 102 pounds in one summer, and his meteoric business career that led to him being frequently referred to as "the Steve Jobs of the fitness industry." When he first learned of his condition, he became seriously depressed, attempting suicide by swallowing a handful of sleeping pills. But he eventually recovered his emotional footing; in a 2006 video showing him announcing the creation of Augie's Quest, he tells the audience, "I'm gonna beat this son of a bitch."
Of course, Nieto is in a luckier position than most sufferers of the disease. He's able to afford no less than five full-time caregivers (all of them Filipino, with one explaining that caring for people is endemic to her country's culture) and the $250,000 a year it costs to keep him alive. He also has tremendous emotional support from his wife, even though their marriage has had its ups and downs over the years. She comments that she doesn't think they'd still be married if he hadn't developed ALS.
Nieto's endless determination has served him well in combating the disease's insidious effects. He works out regularly and is now able to move various parts of his body that were previously immobile. He is, of course, dependent both on technology and other people. One of the film's funniest moments features several of his male work colleagues relating how, when shortly after Nieto was diagnosed with the disease and had lost the use of his hands, they had to help him urinate in public restrooms.
Twelve years after his diagnosis, Nieto is still hanging in. That the film about him doesn't have an unhappy ending is the happiest ending it could have. At least, until a cure for his disease is discovered.
Production company: PCH Films
Distributor: Virgil Films
Director: James Keach
Producers: Eric Carlson, James Keach
Executive producers: Michele Farinola, Lynn Hirschfield
Directors of photography: Ian Coad, Alex Exline
Editors: Elisa Bonora, Parker Laramie