The story of Steve Gleason, the former NFL star now paralyzed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease, has a built-in emotional hook. “Gleason,” Clay Tweel’s documentary on the former athlete’s struggles, doesn’t try anything fancy to tap into the material’s inherent tearjerker potential. But it’s the subject who does the heavy lifting in this earnest portrait built around Gleason’s video diary to his unborn son. While fairly straightforward in its attempts to galvanize viewers around efforts to combat the disease, “Gleason” hits those familiar marks with superb aim.
Structured chronologically starting with Gleason’s diagnosis, the movie quickly establishes his track record. Famous for a blocked punt during his tenure with the New Orleans Saints, Gleason at first copes with the news that he’ll lose all motor abilities in a matter of years in privacy. Once he learns that his wife Michel is pregnant, he fires up the video camera to begin a series of updates for his son, traveling the world and speaking out about his condition until he’s no longer able to move. Visibly strong-willed and clinging to his side, Michel emerges as the story’s genuine hero — and the most frequent source of its heartwarming crescendos.
The bountiful footage doesn’t sugarcoat some of the darker moments Gleason faces with the disease, particularly when dealing with his troubled relationship to his religious fundamentalist father. One unsettling sequence finds the older man dragging his son to a faith healer, leading to a series of awkward confrontations. Gleason fares much better with his secular means of coping with his situation. “It’s not gonna be easy, but it’s gonna be awesome,” he says about his incoming journey as he starts losing the ability to speak and walk. Filled with celebratory moments, the movie mostly focuses on that idealistic perspective. Even a cringe-worthy moment involving constipation and enemas gets a boost of levity when Gleason manages an off-color joke.
Forming the formidable non-profit Team Gleason with the edict “No White Flags,” the ex-player’s resilience as he begins communicating electronically remains poignant. At times, however, the movie feels like an infomercial for its cause. One section finds him interviewing Mike McCready from Pearl Jam, which provided “Gleason” with its soundtrack, and doesn’t deepen the narrative so much as it further emphasizes its rousing ingredients. Much more effective scenes involve the evolving nature of Gleason’s family life, such one haunting moment when he attempts to speak to Michel through his machine while she dozes nearby.
READ MORE: My Big Break: How This Year’s Directors Found Their Way To SundanceUltimately, though, “Gleason” derives its power from its subject’s commitment to documenting his life for his young son. To that end, the movie bears a noticeable similarity to last year’s “Transfatty Lives,” in which the eponymous ALS-stricken performance artist Transfatty directs a diary of his descent into paralysis for the sake of his unborn child. While notably kookier in tone, “Transfatty Lives” also features greater cinematic ambitions indicative of the filmmaker being on both sides of the camera.
With “Gleason,” Tweel (who previously made the slick 3D printing documentary “Print the Legend”) takes a more traditional approach, by letting Gleason guide the story through his developing hardiness. The irony of an expert athlete losing the ability to move isn’t lost on any of the story’s principals. “It’s not going to crush my life even if it crushes my body,” Gleason asserts, and the documentary bears him out. Even as Gleason’s situation looks grim, his support system never bails. While not exactly subtle, the movie’s sentimental qualities are genuine. Like the dramatic play that initially made him famous, “Gleason” manages to generate an intense form of excitement around winning against seemingly impossible odds.
“Gleason” premiered last weekend at the Sundance Film Festival. Open Road will release it theatrically this summer.