In 2011, three years after retiring as a professional NFL player, Steve Gleason was diagnosed with degenerative disease ALS. Just a few weeks later, Gleason’s wife Michel Varisco, discovered she was pregnant, so Gleason set out to create video diaries for his unborn child, so he could pass on his love, fears, hops and beliefs to his child.
Gleason is a truly astounding documentary; made up of Gleason’s video diaries combined with interviews with Gleason’s wife Michel, father Mike, brother Kyle, mother Gail and care taker Blair Casey. There is a startling openness and honesty about the film which turns it from being another so-called disease of the week movie, into a frank and often ugly documentation of a former pro footballer’s descent into ALS.
Director Clay Twee, carefully stitches together the video diaries that Gleason himself has recorded with messages for his as-yet unborn son, and footage filmed over the course of Gleason’s illness. There is a startling honesty about the film, and the audience is allowed to see Gleason be fitted for a wheelchair, record his voice for when he can no longer speak and a computer will do it for him, the birth of his son Rivers, Gleason having an enema in his own home as he has lost control of his bowels, and everything else in between. The raw emotion seen on screen is moving and surprising, and it is hard not to be touched by the sudden descent of Gleason into this illness, and the comparison that is to be drawn between Gleason becoming ever more dependent on other people, while his son Rivers learns to walk, talk and feed himself in a way that his father no longer can.
It would be easy for Gleason to be a film awash with sentimentality, but both Michel and Steve come across as fully rounded; anger, happiness, frustrations and sadness all abound in these people, and there seems to be no holds barred, and no fears as the subjects of the film lay themselves bare on screen. As well as the horror of a man in his 30s losing control of his body, there is a lot of joy to be had with the film, as Steve Gleason’s positivity and love for his family are often palpable as he interacts with them. Gleason’s father does not always come across as a sympathetic person, but this is also where a lot of truth and painful moments in the film come from.
In all, Gleason is a film that could so easily drown in sentimentality, but is elevated through the candid diaries that Gleason has recorded, as well as an almost unselfconscious honesty and openness from Steve and the people around him. Truly surprising and affecting.