‘Gleason’
Director:
Clay Tweel
Genre: Documentary
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

The waterworks start early. Steve Gleason, the NFL player who was diagnosed with ALS at 34, stares into the lens. His disease is in the middle of robbing him of his voice and soon other faculties, so his speech is slurred. He keeps at it anyway, for what we’re watching is a fuzzy, low-res video diary he’s recording for the son who’s about to be born, who will never know him as a strapping athletic god, and will be lucky to know him at all. Gleason’s crying and, if you’re a human, so are you, because his attempts to solider on with the video — and his very existence — create a potent cocktail of despairing and inspiring. 

It’s a mix that runs all the way through “Gleason,” a documentary that drags us through the four years of when Gleason’s disease was first detected and when he’d been confined to a wheelchair, communicating only with the aid of cutting edge technology. Gleason, once a star safety for the Saints, himself is still with us, and he had enough forethought to have filmmakers document his transformation. We see him at every stage: Still able-bodied enough to cram in some traveling and daredevil wishes (like skydiving) before his body began its rebellion; the in-between period when he could only walk with a strange limp and barely form words; full-blown ALS, when all his body would let him do was cry.

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Constructed and partially shot by documentarian Clay Tweel (of the decidedly more comical “Finders Keepers”), “Gleason” is a helluva tale that would (and maybe will) make a gruesome and maudlin biopic. But it’s better as the real deal, where we see actual tears as well as the unpleasant events narrative filmmakers tend to soften. Tweel focuses his edit on the grind of Gleason’s failing body, which plays like a Cronenbergian body horror movie in slow-motion. (It’s reminiscent of the part in “The Fly” when Jeff Goldblum’s scientist talks about documenting every stage in his mutation.) 

Gleason’s not the only star. Equally present is Michel, his harried, driven and very amusing wife, whose resilience is matched by her gallows humor. She’s prone to turn every gruesome turn into a defiant joke, especially if it involves Gleason’s painful and messy attempts to hit the crapper. She can’t contain her annoyance when his very religious father coaxes him into a fruitless visit to a faith healer. She hates when people “congratulate” her upon having a husband with a presently incurable and possibly fatal disease. Towards the end she at least congratulates herself: “Thank god I’m still funny.”

It’s easy to read this as a triumph-of-the-human-spirit jag or even a stranger-than-fiction tall tale. But it runs deeper than that. In his video diaries and fly-on-the-wall scenes alike, we see real fear and real pain on Gleason’s face. He confesses that the very act of living is the hardest thing in the world, and we can see what he means. It’s a movie that makes the pain of his existence — and the impact on his family, loved ones and untold caregivers — tactile, not easily reduced to merely brave. It doesn’t just show us a hero; it’s downright cosmic and all too real. It highlights every inch of his pain and reminds us that life is precious, and not in the manner of a Hallmark card.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge