VOD film review: Gleason
Ivan Radford | On 24, Apr 2017
Director: Clay Tweel
Cast: Steve Gleason, Mike Gleason, Michel Varisco
Watch Gleason online in the UK: Amazon Prime / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play
In 2011, Stephen Gleason was diagnosed with motor neurone disease. A professional football player, he was already a hero in New Orleans, thanks to a symbolic blocked punt during his team’s first home game in the wake of Hurricane Katrina – a gesture of defiance and resilience that eventually became immortalised in statue form. But he only goes on to become even more inspiring in his later years.
Even the fact that he has “later years” is something quite remarkable: given only a few years to live at the age of 34, Gleason just keeps on going (and still is today), taking each blow and then getting right back up again. Director Clay Tweel is there to catch it all on tape, building up an astonishing, moving portrait of human hunger for life. But while that might sound like an easy touchdown for a moving about a sporting hero going on to form his own charity to help other MND (in America, ALS) patients, it’s far from it – and Gleason’s gut-punching impact stems from just how carefully and compassionately it’s put together.
From the soundtrack to the editing, Tweel’s team never once overstep the mark into mawkishness or manipulation: Stephen’s consent and collaboration is evident every step of the way, with most of the footage coming from his own camera. That access, and that genuine intimacy between the filmmaker and his subject, only reinforces the genuine emotion at the heart of the film – it’s full of beautiful sentiment, but never cynically sentimental. As a result, the film doesn’t shy away from the lows as well as the highs: on the one hand, we learn that Stephen’s wife is pregnant with their first child; on the other, we see him try to raise that child and be a father to a son who can move and, one day, will be able to speak more than him. On the one hand, his wife, Michel Varisco, is a rock of support; on the other hand, the strain of looking after him also takes a visible toll on her.
It’s graphic, tragic stuff to witness, from the moment where a nurse has to help him evacuate his bowels to the near silence when a husband and wife lay across the room from each other, one unable to talk, the other unwilling. But there’s wonderful humour in their passion to push on through; even when the proverbial poo hits the fan, there are laughs to be had.
Tweel, meanwhile, teases out a poignant theme of fatherhood, as we see Stephen try to reconcile with his dad, Mike, who is staunchly Christian and, at one point, forces him to go to a faith healer (one of the film’s most harrowing scenes), while also struggling to create a legacy for his own boy, Rivers, to remember. Indeed, the movie itself is part of Stephen’s effort to leave something behind for his son, which makes the whole thing even more affecting; everything we see is testament to the strength of Stephen and his friends and family, right down to the fact that the camera’s rolling in the first place. Interviews with celebrities, such as Pearl Jam’s lead singer, that see them get choked up more than him ram home the sheer inspirational force of Stephen’s achievements, which have actively made a difference to other MND sufferers across the US. Overcoming his condition to become more than his illness, this is an eye-opening, stirring insight into what it’s like to live with MND, but also a tribute to a life that refuses to be any less meaningful in the face of it. Have some tissues to hand. You’ll need them.
Gleason is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.