'Gleason': Sundance Review

Gleason Still - Publicity - H 2016
Courtesy of Cinetic Media

Gleason Still - Publicity - H 2016

A powerful look into the disease's shockingly rapid pace and one man's battle against it.

An athlete diagnosed with ALS races to create a video testament for his unborn son before he can no longer speak.

Some sports-averse moviegoers may be scared away by the logline for Gleason, which highlights its star's past as an NFL hero in New Orleans. But football is just a backdrop in Clay Tweel's powerful documentary, an illustration of the ferocious drive that helps Steve Gleason fight after being diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease), and a means for him to attract national attention in a campaign to help others with the disease. Focused much more intently on video journals Gleason made as his illness progressed, the film both documents his rapid physical decline and ponders the many existential issues it raises — especially for a married couple expecting their first child in a few months. Sure to elicit strong emotional response from viewers, the doc has theatrical potential beyond fests and should have long legs on video.

Gleason was playing for the New Orleans Saints when the Superdome reopened after Hurricane Katrina, blocking a punt in a play that locals came to see as a symbol of post-tragedy rebirth. He retired in 2008, a young man looking forward to an adventurous life with his wife, Michel. Then in 2011, after experiencing strange muscle twitches, he was diagnosed with ALS and told the average life expectancy was two to five years. Six weeks later, the couple learned Michel was pregnant.

Seemingly right away, Gleason confronted the fact that, even if he lives long enough to see his child grow capable of deep conversations, he almost surely won't be capable of natural speech. He starts recording thoughtful and sometimes eloquent video journals for the boy to watch when he's old enough, trying to share all the wisdom, experience and love one could want from a lifetime of fathering.

These journals are sweet, sad and sometimes funny. But presented mostly in chronological order, along with other filmed material, they also afford us a frightening view of Gleason's deterioration. Just four months after diagnosis, he's sufficiently impaired to where it's impossible to hide on an outing with friends; before the child's first birthday, speaking is so difficult he tells the camera, wrenchingly, "I think the last of my talking days are here."

(At the outset, Gleason worked with sports filmmaker Sean Pamphilon, who wound up releasing some damning behind-the-scenes Saints footage without Gleason's permission that helped document the "Bountygate" scandal. Pamphilon is not mentioned or credited in the doc; reps say that a small portion of the final film was shot by him.)

Gleason learns to use an eye-triggered speech synthesizer, and soon makes distributing these machines a focus of Team Gleason, the group he starts to help others with ALS. Tweel chronicles both the rampant success this effort has and the strain running things places on his family life. Even after she hires a friend to be Gleason's caregiver, Michel can hardly keep up with tending to both her husband and an infant. "I'm wearing you down to bones," he types out on his screen one day. Several scenes later, we witness an exhaustion-fueled fight that, given the devotion between the two, is heartbreaking.

Gleason follows its subject for four years, to the point at which the robust, globe-traveling man is completely transformed into a skinny, nonverbal body in a wheelchair. But having followed him from the start, we can't help but see the active mind inside that body, one full of love for his family and determination to stay with them as long as he can.

Production companies: IMG Films, Dear Rivers Productions
Director-editor: Clay Tweel
Producers: Seth Gordon, Kimi Culp, Scott Fujita, Mary Rohlich, Tom Lavia, Thomas McEachin, Kevin Lake
Executive producers: Mark Shapiro, Will Staeger, Paul Varisco, Sr.
Directors of photography: David Lee, Ty Minton-Small

Composers: Dan Romer, Saul Simon MacWilliams
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (US Documentary Competition)
Sales: Liesl Copland, WME

Not rated, 110 minutes