It’s difficult to fault in Clay Tweel’s Gleason as a whole. While it has definite flaws, it’s so good-natured and well-meaning that it’s difficult to hate, even if I don’t really expect much of an audience for it. And, due to its specialized content, I can’t think of many people I’d wholeheartedly recommend it to. This is, of course, often the case with documentaries — inherently the most specialized form of filmmaking. Gleason is no different, though it does occasionally go beyond its message and into more emotional territory.
The film’s subject is Steve Gleason, a former NFL player who was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), when he was 34. On top of this, just weeks after his diagnosis, Gleason learned that his wife, Michel, was pregnant with their first child. The film is told through the video diary Steve kept to document his illness and the gradual degradation of his condition — but also as a means of communicating with his son later on.
In this sense, the main thrust of the film is to create awareness of ALS. Not only does Gleason show the effect the disease has on the body of a world-class athlete, it follows Steve as he becomes an activist for research and helping those who suffer from the condition. As a means of conveying information (which is the main purpose of a documentary), Gleason succeeds, even if it doesn’t make for the most riveting viewing at face value.
Thankfully, the film takes time to focus on Steve and his various relationships. Early on, he states that one of his priorities is making sure his relationships are in order, particularly with his father and the difficulty the two have had seeing eye-to-eye on religious matters. Steve wants to allow his father the comfort of Christianity but doesn’t want it forced on him, instead taking a more spiritual approach to his worldview. There’s an honesty in what the cameras show, and there seems to be little that the audience isn’t allowed in on when it comes to Steve and his family. The most particularly harrowing moments are the ones involving Steve and Michel and the unimaginable toll ALS takes on their marriage.
While Gleason‘s more emotional moments make the film something more than it could’ve been, the focus is still on Steve and his disease. This means that a person’s particular interest in the fight against ALS or in Gleason’s fight for awareness is likely to make the most difference on how they feel about the movie. Rated R for language.
Opens Friday August 12 at Carolina Cinemark