About a year ago I guested on the LAMBcast for one of their Roll Your Own Top 5 episodes and I presented my list of the ‘Top 5 Films to Make a Grown Man Cry’. It consisted of five films I found particularly emotional, spurred on by the fact that since becoming a father three years ago I’ve found myself crying during films a lot more than I used to. Since making that list I haven’t got any less soft, but I have seen a couple of films that would easily muscle their way onto it. One was A Monster Calls, which had the whole cinema sniffling away from start to finish, and the other was this, J. Clay Tweel’s documentary Gleason.
Gleason tells the story of Steve Gleason, a former professional American football player who found fame for blocking a punt in the team’s first home game after Hurricane Katrina, a game that became a symbol of recovery in New Orleans. In 2011, a couple of years after he retired from playing professionally, Steve was diagnosed with having amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. It’s a brutal disease that causes the death of neurons which control voluntary muscles. This results in difficulty in speaking, swallowing, and eventually breathing, meaning that sufferers’ life expectancy is usually around only 2-5 years.
A twist in this tragedy came shortly after Steve’s diagnosis, when his wife Michel found out she was pregnant. From that point, determined that his son get to know his father, remember him once gone and learn from him, Steve decided to create a video diary of his life from that point. The documentary mixes this footage with some other brief interviews and archival material to provide a profoundly moving portrait of this inspirational man and his supportive family.
It sounds like a miserable affair, especially given my introduction to this review, but although I shed a great many tears whilst watching this film, it was largely the love on show that moved me rather than any sadness. Steve’s dedication to his son is incredibly touching, as is the energy he puts into raising money and awareness of the disease. Most heartwarming though is the love of Michel for her husband. She works so hard to care for Steve and her son as well as keep them sane by making them laugh. In fact there’s a lot of humour in the film. Steve doesn’t wallow in misery (although he does have dark moments of course, who wouldn’t), he keeps his spirits up as best he can. He and Michel are wonderfully open and frank with each other, which helps fuel the lighter moments and demonstrates their strong bond.
It’s not a schmaltzy rose-tinted affair though, we do see the toll the constant care-giving takes on Michel for instance. She grows tired and weary, causing cracks to appear in the seemingly bulletproof relationship between her and Steve. As inspirational as the film can feel, it is still refreshingly honest about the hardships Steve and his family must go through. It even looks at the dificulties of putting so much work into fundraising and ‘being a hero’ whilst simultaneously having to deal with the crippling effects of such a vicious disease.
Being a father, it’s all the content about Steve becoming a dad that really touched me though, more so than the terminal illness aspects perhaps. Not only does Steve’s relationship with his son, prior to and after birth, take centre stage for much of the time, but Steve tries to patch things up with his father throughout the film. Steve didn’t always see eye to eye with his dad growing up, as he could be very strict and they didn’t agree on questions of faith (his dad is an old-fashioned hardened Christian whereas Steve’s views on religion are a bit more loose and personal). This relationship is particularly tested in an unusual and kind of sad sequence when Steve’s dad takes him to a faith healer which proves a little embarrassing and results in Michel arguing with her father in law.
In terms of filmmaking, it’s not a documentary that pushes any boundaries or uses any striking techniques, but it doesn’t need to. Instead it thrives on the quality of content Tweel had access to. The diaries are incredibly intimate and poignant, so sensibly make up most of the running time. Tweel expertly cuts these with a few interviews and some archive footage to tell Steve’s story without the need of voiceover or too many cue cards. It’s a surprisingly riveting watch even though you know it can’t have a particularly happy ending.
All in all, it’s an incredibly beautiful film about life, love and parenthood. A deeply emotional experience, it’s nigh on impossible to watch without crying, especially if you’re a parent. Don’t let that put you off though as you’d be missing out on a wonderful documentary with far more heart and soul than any tearjerking fictional drama.
Gleason will be released in selected cinemas in the UK from 17th March by Arrow Films.