Saturday, July 30, 2016

Clay Tweel's GLEASON charts footballer Steve Gleason's rise to fatherhood and fall from ALS

TrustMovies, who does not follow sports, knew little-to-nothing about Steve Gleason, the ex-football star and now victim of ALS whose main goals in life over the past decade or so have been becoming the best father he can to his son (born soon after his initial ALS diagnosis) and calling the world's attention to this horribly debilitating and eventually fatal disease. From the new and eponymously titled documentary, GLEASON, it would seem he has succeeded at both -- at the former about as well as any dad with this disease could possibly do it, the latter surprisingly well -- as the much lauded and much criticized 2015 dump-a-bucket-of-ice-water-over-your-head fund-raising campaign certainly proved, in both capturing attention to ALS and fund-raising for it.

We see only a very little here about Steve Gleason's days as a great football player (shown at right: college ball at Washington State in Pullman and then professionally for the New Orleans Saints). But the movie does seem to make clear that this fellow was a greatly skilled, dynamic and very well-liked team player. And what we see and hear of him post-ALS-diagnosis bears all this out. Most of the film details the time from his diagnosis until very nearly now, as we watch his decline at the same time as he and his wife, Michel Varisco, do their best, first to prepare for the birth of their child, and then to raise the boy at the same time as Michelle and others must care for the declining Steve.

This is very difficult stuff to watch, and the movie certainly doesn't sugar-coat anything -- from Steve's difficulties coping with the disease to Michelle's and others' in cleaning up his sudden bowel movements. From early on (and very fortunately so far as the documentary is concerned) Gleason liked to videotape himself and his family, and this only grew stronger and more necessary once the diagnosis arrived. So the film's director Clay Tweel (shown at right, who earlier gave us a dear little doc about up-and-coming magicians called Make Believe) has a treasure trove of video already prepared and which he uses quite well, along with his own footage, to bring this inspirational, if horrifying, story to life.

We learn of Steve's relationship with his parents (who argued, fought and then divorced). His dad has since embraced some kind of fundamentalist, faith-healing religion, which he pushes his son to embrace, too. This makes for difficulties that are later smoothed over -- but then perhaps only incompletely. We meet Michel's dad, as well, who toward the end of the film, tells us something sad but compelling about what we've just witnessed: Michel and Steve, he explains, used to have "the ability to tell each other anything and everything. That has been lost in this process." We can certainly understand how and why this would happen, given all that we see here.

Back in 2013, there was a ground-breaking and better British documentary about a young man trying to cope -- along with his wife and newborn child -- with ALS. Titled I Am Breathing, it detailed the struggle, the strength and the loss in only 73 minutes (Gleason lasts around 40 minutes longer) and was even more artful and thoughtful, to boot. But it did not have an ex-sports star at its center, so almost nobody went to see it. A shame. But that's our civilization. And at least Steve Gleason's fame has helped draw more attention to an ugly, debilitating disease.

Overall, Gleason, though moving and compassionate, proves mostly an endurance test. But it is one that will make you realize that if Steve and Michel can go through years and years of this hell-on-earth, the least we viewers can do is spend  two hours of our own, so-much-easier life, watching him and his family trying to cope.

From Amazon Studios via Open Road Films and running a very long 112 minutes, Gleason opened theatrically yesterday in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and New Orleans, and will hit theaters across the country in the weeks to come. You can click here to view all currently scheduled playdates, with cities and theaters listed.

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