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GLEASON (USA 2016) ***
Directed by Clay Tweel
Starring: Steve Gleason, Mike Gleason, Scott Fujita
Review by Gilbert Seah
Clay Tweel’s GLEASON is a documentary that chronicles the journey of former New Orleans Saints football star Steve Gleason after being diagnosed with ALS at age 34. The doc was assembled from footage taken by Steve’s family, friends and caregivers.
Gleason became a local hero after he blocked a punt during the team’s first game at the Superdome following Hurricane Katrina – a play that resulted in a touchdown for the Saints and became a symbol of recovery for the city. He retired in 2008 and married New Orleans artist Michel Varisco. Three years later, the ALS news came, just as they discovered that Michel was expecting their first child. Given two to five years to live, he begins recording a video diary for his son.
GLEASON is not the first film made about football injuries. The 2012 Steve James documentary HEAD GAMES told Chris Nowinski’s story based on Nowinski’s 2006 book by the same name. Nowinski suffered multiple concussions during his career as a football player and professional wrestler, and he has been diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome. Nowinski has dedicated his life to advocating and researching brain trauma. It is no coincidence that Nowinski’s work has coincided with the plethora of lawsuits filed by former players alleging the NFL hid information regarding brain trauma.
GLEASON touches the subject of the course of his ALS and hints that it was likely due to football. But nothing more is said of the subject. One can only guess that Gleason’s father and him had put in more effort to possible faith healing than to go after the culprits.
The two most almost unwatchable scenes, involve him having to take a shit, aided by his loved ons and caregiver and an argument with him and his father. The father argues that if his son, Steve does not believe in faith healing, he will not be saved, while Steve cries his heart out that he truly believes he is saved regardless. Other ones like Steve’s venting on life or his difficulty in breathing are necessary.
But the hero in all this, apart from Steve Gleason achieving Obama’s bill on providing speech machines to ALs patients is his wife, Michel. Caring for both their son and Steve at the same time requires the patience of an angel. The most effective scene in the film is the one where the two lie in bed next to each other. Steve is complaining that she ignores him. But the audience can see that she is just tired and wants to be left alone and Steve will not let her. Her tireless patience is nothing short of angelic.
The film features two celebrities, the lead guitarist of Gleason favourite and, Pearl Jam and a glimpse of physicist Stephen Hawking, another victim of ALs.
As described as a warts and all documentary on Gleason’s life, the film concentrates more on the warts. GLEASON is a brutal watch with many segments almost unbearable.
GLEASON has won many praises including the Audience Award at SXSW 2016. It is the honesty of Gleason’s misery that have captivated the hearts of audiences.
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