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Moving 'Gleason' stresses the importance of determination, fatherhood

Posted August 11
Updated August 12

A scene from "Gleason." (Deseret Photo)

"GLEASON" — 3 stars — Steve Gleason, Michel Gleason, Rivers Gleason; not rated; Sundance

“Gleason” is much more than a documentary about a professional athlete who was diagnosed with ALS. It is also a powerful portrait of the value and importance of fatherhood.

Steve Gleason is a football hero in New Orleans. His blocked punt in the first game back at the Louisiana Superdome after Hurricane Katrina was so important to the city they built a statue of it outside. But three years after his retirement in 2011, Gleason was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, known as ALS.

“Gleason” is the result of a video journal he kept for his son, Rivers, who was born just under a year after the diagnosis. The chronological narrative, which combines Steve Gleason's footage with material shot by director Clay Tweel, follows the crisscrossing paths of Rivers’ growth and Steve Gleason’s physical decline, and the results are inspiring and heartbreaking.

The physical ravages of ALS are impactful in any case, but watching the disease turn a professional athlete like Gleason into a young Stephen Hawking is staggering. Yet the counterpoint of Rivers’ birth and growth is a powerful reminder that life goes on.

The pivot point and unsung hero in the story is Michel, Gleason’s tough-as-nails wife. We see a little of her personality come through in an early segment that talks about their courtship, and how no one ever saw her as the type to settle down. Her evolution from wild child to burdened caretaker might be every bit as noble a character arc as her husband’s.

The relationship between Rivers and and his dad is just one of the film’s father-son dynamics. Some of the documentary’s most powerful moments come between Steve Gleason and his father, Mike. When Steve Gleason was a child, Mike was prone to anger, and battled constantly with Steve’s mother. But when we meet him, he’s embraced spirituality, and his interactions with his son are captivating. In one, Mike takes Steve and Michel Gleason to see a faith healer, with dubious results. And in another, he and his son share a discussion about Gleason’s spiritual welfare that is stunning.

One of the most noteworthy aspects of “Gleason” is its insistence on directness. There is no attempt to gloss over the more difficult aspects of Steve’s decline, and the camera captures more (both emotionally and visually) than one might expect. Sensitive viewers might cringe at the sight of Gleason’s family trying to help him use the bathroom (the image is more blunt than graphic), but the result is a documentary that portrays honest human beings in a struggle that we often miss behind the inspiring music and public honors.

One of the biggest surprises is how little time “Gleason” spends on the famous Ice Bucket Challenge that swept social media in 2014. As catchy as that demonstration might have been, “Gleason” gives us several images that put a more human face on ALS, such as when Steve and Michel Gleason use their Team Gleason foundation to help another ALS patient take a trip to Italy.

One of “Gleason’s” most powerful moments comes as Gleason interviews Eddie Vedder, the lead singer of Pearl Jam, his favorite band.

After explaining his video journal for Rivers, Steve Gleason asks Vedder, who never knew his father, what he would have liked to know about the man who brought him into the world. Vedder struggles to maintain his composure, trying to articulate an answer to a man sitting in an automated wheelchair, speaking through a computer. The look in the rock star’s eyes may tell you all you ever need to know about the importance of fatherhood.

Of all its messages, that may be "Gleason's" most enduring.

“Gleason” was featured at this year's Sundance Film Festival, and is not rated, but it has R-rated language scattered throughout.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who appeared weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" from 2013 to 2016. He also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.

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