Monday 20 March 2017

GLEASON review

Charting his diagnosis with ALS/MND and subsequent battle against the disease, Gleason follows former New Orleans Saints player Steve Gleason as he prepares for fatherhood amidst the deterioration of his body.

Diagnosed in 2011 with ALS/MND at the age of 33, former NFL player Gleason and his wife found out 6 weeks later that they were expecting a baby. Realising he may never have a conversation with his unborn child and faced with the prospect of being unable to be the father figure he wants to be, Gleason started to record video journals that his son can look at later on in life. His aim was simply to "give you as much of myself as I can, while I can".

His wife Michel's pregnancy is such an important part of the early stage of his diagnosis and of the film, providing us with a firm timeline of how far the body can grow in 9 months, but also how fast it can deteriorate in the same amount of time. As a recently retired professional athlete, we see Steve take part in a triathlon 4 months after his diagnosis and be notably fatigued in a way he never has been before, and the emotional realisation from Michel of what lies ahead.

It would be doing her a disservice to simply state that Michel shows great strength throughout this experience. Faced with having to care for her husband as well as a new baby, it's remarkable how composed she remains. When baby Rivers arrives (and is possibly the cutest kid on the face of the Earth), Steve actively tries to find ways around his physical limitations to ensure that father/son bond is solid.

This parental connection and what it takes to be a good father is what drives the film. It's clear that Steve had issues with how he was raised by his own father, and is desperate not to repeat the same mistakes. Steve's mother hardly appears in the film, but it's clear that there was an active choice to pursue the often combative and strained relationship between Steve and his father. This lingering resentment occasionally boils over, and although the two men are able to openly discuss what has caused the atmosphere between them in a frank and honest manner, it is evident that Steve is keen to not see history repeat itself when concerning his own son, Rivers. The ALS/MND may distance him from his son against his will, but Steve is willing to fight against what may be inevitable.

With differing opinions on matters of spirituality and faith and on how Steve's treatment should progress, when taken to a faith healer by his father (much to the chagrin of Michel), it's heartbreaking to see Steve push the limits of what his body can manage in front of the congregation. Gleason covers similar ground to the also excellent documentary Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet, and shows a man who even before his ALS/MND diagnosis was a symbol of triumph over adversity for the role he played in the New Orleans Saints' comeback, post Hurricane Katrina.

As professional athletes go, Steve is a relatively calm and composed individual with a love for the simpler things in life (he loves his wife, he loves football and he loves Pearl Jam), but when put to the test his fighting spirit and desire to win is undeniable. Equal parts love story, fight against the odds and search for that connection that fathers and sons have, this extraordinarily powerful documentary is a testament to what family and the human spirit is able to achieve.


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