Gleason review: Clay Tweel’s film about a former NFL sports star living with ALS finally comes to UK shores.

Gleason review by Paul Heath, March 2017.

Gleason review

Released to coincide with its subject matter’s 40th birthday, Gleason follows Steve Gleason, a former NFL football player, over a period of five years as he lives with the incurable autoimmune condition ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis).

Gleason was hailed as one of the New Orleans Saints‘ most important players in a post-Hurricane Katrina world, where he was responsible for blocking an important punt from an Atlanta Falcons player which led to the Saints’ first touchdown for nearly two years, during which time that devastating natural disaster hit the city. Gleason’s famously became the unofficial symbol of New Orleans’ resilience in the face of disaster, and to this day a statue of the defensive back stands proudly outside of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in the heart of the city.

In 2011, three years after retiring from the sport, Gleason was diagnosed with ALS (often referred to as Lou Gehrig’s Disease/ Motor Neurone Disease), and shortly afterwards discovered that his wife, Michel Rae Varisco, was expecting their first child. After hearing the news, Gleason started to make video diaries for their unborn son, a blog of footage documenting his memories, achievements and thoughts for his forthcoming child that could be viewed after his illness began to get more aggressive, and his communication capabilities more limited. This developed into a bigger documentary, the end result is this film which skillfully, and very personally filmed by Sean Pamphilon, and directed by Clay Tweel. Gleason documents the gradual deterioration of the former NFL star’s health, and how it affects both him, and indeed those all around him.

It would be very easy for the film to focus purely on Gleason’s struggles as an individual, but Tweel’s documentary doesn’t let itself down by honing in on that alone. It develops itself constantly, and looks at the effects Gleason’s illness has on his wife, Michel, and her personal struggles as life has to be adapted to not only this highly destructive illness, but to change with the introduction of a third person into their relationship, their son Rivers. It also delves into the bond between Gleason and his father and the struggles they had earlier in life, a perfectly placed, reflective aspect of the film, which again hits hard in many places throughout.

Undeniably raw, unflinching and, in places, extremely difficult to watch, Tweel’s film is also altogether engrossing, heartfelt and sometimes funny, but absolutely inspiring to the very end. It’s hard not to be affected by Gleason, both the film and the person, the former for its initial shattering cruel life-story, and the latter for his unwillingness to give up and not only refuse to wave that white flag, but to give back and ultimately move forward. An absolute triumph and truly unmissable.

Gleason review by Paul Heath, March 2017.

Gleason is released in UK cinemas on 17th March 2017.