Chronicling 5 years in the life of ex-New Orleans Saints football defensive back Steve Gleason after being diagnosed with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), Gleason is an intimate look at the declining health of a man who had it all and the immense love and support he receives and an incredible strength within he uses to carry on living.
Gleason’s story is a heartbreaking one: the film begins building up Gleason’s former glories, from his star football career, to meeting his free spirited, joyful wife Michel. Everything begins to fall apart once he’s diagnosed with ALS in 2011 though, and it’s crushing to watch his health rapidly deteriorate – a man who initially appears completely healthy still participating in sports who eventually becomes wheelchair bound, unable to do basic things like changing by himself, and taking on the same machine that Stephen Hawking does to speak due to deterioration of his vocal chords. He’s visibly frustrated by this; he cries, he admits his fear of being a burden to those around him and his wish that he’d sometimes rather die in his increasingly infrequent video journals.
At the heart of it all though, Gleason is a story about the incredible strength and hope about a man’s will to live in spite of a terminal illness that changes everything about his past life. Before being rendered unable to walk to speak, Gleason establishes a charity foundation determined to help those with ALS, a kind of Make-A-Wish Foundation that uses their donations to help the afflicted live out their dreams. Gleason changes lives, and has an overwhelmingly infectious positive energy and spirit that makes him an inspiration to all. There’s a kind of heroic battle against the cards fate has dealt him, that makes Gleason all the more brave and inspirational, that in spite of the unimaginable frustration and pain he’s experiencing, he is determined to live on.
As much as the film is about Gleason, it’s also about those around him, from his wife Michel, to their carer, to his son, who is born just shy of a year after he is diagnosed. Michel is the most steadfast person around, and is a hero in her own right, taking care of Gleason night and day while also caring for their son, and holding on even though things have irrevocably changed. She’s human too of course, and goes through incredible emotional duress, but is pretty much a saint for staying there for him through thick and thin. Gleason’s father, though initially painted as a bit off kilter, taking him to alternative faith therapies and having had a problematic marriage in Gleason’s childhood, is eventually redeemed when father and son attempt to make up, and he breaks down at seeing how much his son has suffered.
By illustrating the life of an ordinary man battling an extraordinary ordeal, both physically and emotionally, Gleason is ultimately a life affirming film that reminds us of the immense support and love each and every one of us is surrounded by to help us get through even the toughest of life’s challenges. It’ll fill you with immense hope, it’ll make you cry at his lowest points, and re-emphasises the extraordinary strength of the human will to live.
Gleason is in UK cinemas 17 March and out on DVD and Digital Download 24th April.