Steve Gleason used to be a linebacker for the New Orleans Saints, and though he wasn't the biggest guy around, he did have bundles of energy and a drive to succeed that proved formidable on the football field. Having made a success of that, he settled into retirement in about 2008 and eventually married Michel, who was his soulmate in that neither of them expected to get hitched, but they loved each other so much that it was the obvious choice for the rest of their lives. However, as they enjoyed each other's company and took trips around the world, Steve began to feel odd twinges and twitches in his body, and decided to get them checked out to be on the safe side. That's when he received the diagnosis he had the muscle-wasting disease ALS...
A disease that is more often than not deadly in about five years after diagnosis, unless you're a special case like Professor Stephen Hawking whose vast superbrain appears to be keeping him alive way past the normal life span of someone afflicted with this. As if that were not enough, Steve and Michel then received the news that she was a few weeks pregnant, and they began to draw up plans for a future for their child that it did not look as if Steve was going to be part of. He decided if he could not be there in person, he would create a video journal, and got documentary filmmaker Clay Tweel to assist, directing an official film about his deteriorating state, but also his charitable efforts to raise awareness of the condition.
After watching this, you had to admire Gleason for his endeavours to improve the circumstances of his fellow sufferers, which achieved concrete benefits that were rightly lauded, especially for a man who was in the weakened state he was. There was plenty sobering about watching his decline from the man of action to the withered body stuck in a wheelchair, communicating by computer, and Gleason evidently did not wish to play down the sheer ordeal that his life had become: it was the sort of film the word "unflinching" was designed to describe. In that vein we were offered graphic images of how difficult his bathroom visits became, or the operations that he had to endure to ensure he still lived.
No matter that by the latter stages of the documentary you begin to wonder if it would not be better for him to have his suffering ended; this was not a pro-euthanasia tract, it was a pro-making the best of a bad hand that life has dealt you, but it did make you consider how you would feel should a debilitating disease strike you, and if you would rather your body's punishment was over sooner instead of later. Indeed, there was much about this that was so honest that the sense Gleason was oversharing was a matter you may have to judge for yourself, particularly when the slow crisis takes a toll on the marriage and former party girl Michel finds herself trapped in the role of nurse in a way that she never planned for, never mind that she never wanted her marriage to unfold in this tragic course of events.
Then there was Steve's relationship with his father, a deeply religious man who in one of the cruellest scenes takes his son to a faith healer, prompting Steve to try to run before the congregation whereupon he predictably stumbles and collapses to the floor. The cause of that kind of religion was done no favours by this display, and you can well understand why there is friction between the parent and child when they just do not see eye to eye on this matter, no wonder when the father's faith is so intransigent and hardline. Although there was a lot about American football here, as you would expect as Steve was a local hero in that respect, there was not so much that you would tune out if you were not either a follower of the sport or more likely, not an American therefore couldn't give a stuff about the activity, as this was a human story that was worth relating when it could afflict any one of us, or anyone we knew, not specifically ALS but any of the dreadful diseases that can befall us. Yes, it was sentimental, yes, you could feel yourself be manipulated (that constant music!), but as part of Steve's charity work, it had worth.
GLEASON is in cinemas 17 March and out on DVD and Digital Download 24th April.