By Gregory Crofton
I didn’t feel like watching GLEASON, a documentary about a retired professional football star who is diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS). The film seemed like it would be depressing enough not to want to turn on.
But it is a tremendously powerful piece of work, one of the most honest and personal documentaries I’ve ever seen. GLEASON takes you on an explicit and emotionally jarring journey to one of the darkest places that families have to go together — toward death.
1,300 hours of video were shot for the film. Clay Tweel, who worked on two highly acclaimed docs FINDERS KEEPERS and THE KING OF KONG: A FIST FULL OF QUARTERS, sorted through it all. Much of it shows the growing terror of how the disease is stealing Gleason’s speech and mobility as he awaits the birth of his son. The footage also exposes how the illness tests the patience and dampens the spirit of his wife.
What makes the documentary tolerable, even entertaining, despite its dour subject matter is the pure perseverance and joy that’s present. Touching moments of heightened love and happiness between wife and husband and father and son shine, and these balance out the despair and debilitation that’s shown to come with ALS.
Steve in the hospital room to coach his wife as she gives birth to their son Rivers is an ecstatically joyful occasion. So are the times that Gleason returns to the Superdome to be celebrated by fans of the New Orleans Saints.
The most unforgettable scene in the film, however, is about faith. As it’s becoming very difficult for him to speak, Steve pleads with his dad, a religious man, that his soul is not doomed just because he won’t accept the rules of his father’s faith. I can’t remember anything on film that’s more intimate and interesting.
When you’ve got two hours and you’re ready for the spiritual odyssey that is this film, find GLEASON streaming on Amazon Prime, or rent it for $4.99 here. It’s worth it.
**Visit Team Gleason a foundation set up by Steve to help people with ALS.