I finally got around to seeing the documentary film "Gleason," which is playing at AMC River Park Square, and I was not just impressed but moved. It's an unsparing look at a man, a woman, their son and the struggle the family faces when a deadly disease strikes. Following is the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:
One school of thought equates suffering with dignity. Another labels suffering a bit more precisely: as a struggle against pain and angst and a desperate plea for release.
Neither, however, is the point of the documentary “Gleason.” Oh, the subject of the film – former New Orleans Saints football player Steve Gleason – has a massive amount of dignity. Not to mention pride, as well as an earnest desire to be a good father, even if he’ll never be able to hug his son or even speak to him in his natural voice.
And for sure, director Clay Tweel spares neither Gleason nor his wife Michel – nor us, for that matter – in his depiction of Gleason’s multiple-year decline to the debilitating disease Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, popularly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Gleason, a Spokane native who played football both at Gonzaga Prep and Washington State University, earned fame for a single play. On Sept. 25, 2006, the Saints played their first home game in 21 months, slightly more than a year after Hurricane Katrina. During that game, Gleason blocked a punt that a teammate returned for a touchdown, the first score in a game the Saints went on to win and that set the tone for their best season to that point – a tone that would, three seasons later, carry them to an NFL championship.
Gleason would be gone by then, his eight-year NFL career over. And while the end of every athlete’s playing years is sad, far worse news was waiting: In 2011, Gleason was diagnosed with ALS. Shortly after that, Gleason began recording videos sharing his thoughts, both about what he was enduring and specifically leaving messages to his son, Rivers, who was born 10 months after Gleason received his diagnosis.
And if there is a theme to “Gleason” the movie, it’s that sense of legacy, especially regarding the father-son connection. Gleason and his brother, Kyle, talk about their own parents’ tumultuous relationship, which ended in divorce. And Gleason’s father, Mike, shows up, apologetic about his own parental failures but still somewhat clueless about his son’s feelings.
Cluelessness is not what Gleason wanted for his own son, especially not about a father who many would characterize as a “hero” – for his football exploits, for his fight with ALS and for the work his Team Gleason foundation has done to help other ALS patients. He wanted his son to know the plain truth.
So as his body deteriorated – leaving only his mind untouched – Gleason made video after video, expressing his feelings – his fears, his hopes, his love both for his wife and for his son. Director Tweel fills his film with many of those moments, pared down from hundreds of hours, along with shots of Gleason undergoing a series of procedures that would test the patience of Mother Theresa.
“Gleason” the documentary, then, is not simply another inspiring story of one man’s valiant fight against disease. In the end, it is real and raw, a true tale carrying its own kind of dignity.