×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Sundance Film Review: ‘Gleason’

Clay Tweel's emotionally wrenching documentary chronicles NFL star Steve Gleason's battle with ALS.

With:
Steve Gleason, Michel Varisco, Blair Casey, Mike Gleason, Paul Varisco Sr., Scott Fujita, Drew Brees, Mike McCready, Eddie Vedder, Rivers Varisco Gleason.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5244134/

The devastating effects of ALS are on full display in “Gleason,” an emotional powerhouse of a documentary charting former NFL star Steve Gleason’s battle with the debilitating disorder. With seemingly no restrictions from his subjects, director Clay Tweel delivers far more than just a typical inspirational living-with-disease doc: This is a portrait of a family forced to completely readjust their lives, never flinching from the accompanying fears and frustrations. Tweel masterfully assembles roughly four years of footage, much of it shot by Gleason himself, and the result is painfully raw at times but undeniably rewarding. His name value should provide a commercial stepping stone for a doc with strong potential to score across all platforms; Amazon purchased U.S. rights at Sundance, and will partner with Open Road on theatrical release.

It would’ve been easy to play Gleason’s story for sentimental uplift meant to inspire others to live life to its fullest, or as a feature-length fundraising ad for the Team Gleason charity assisting those living with ALS. “Gleason” may accomplish both of those things anyway, but any such benefits come honestly and without manipulation by inviting viewers along on an intimate journey and holding nothing back.

Already a modern-day folk hero when he played for the New Orleans Saints, thanks to a pivotal blocked punt during the team’s first game following Hurricane Katrina, Gleason became a symbol of courage in the sports world when he was diagnosed with ALS at the age of 34. The diagnosis was almost immediately followed by the news that his wife, free-spirited artist Michel Varisco Gleason, was pregnant with their first child.

Intent on leaving his offspring something to remember him by before his disease progressed too far (his life expectancy was as little as a few years), Gleason begins taping video journals full of advice, observations and lessons about life, as well as general updates on his own health. A documentary was already under discussion (filmmaker Sean Pamphilon was originally attached to the project), but entrusting anyone with footage so vulnerable and revealing couldn’t have been an easy call.

Especially as the years go on, the disease intensifies and Gleason’s physical condition deteriorates to the point when he can no longer hold his son or take care of his own basic functions (as demonstrated in a frank sequence involving a jolly nurse who arrives to give him an enema). The toll all this takes on Varisco, who is simultaneously trying to raise a toddler, couldn’t be clearer. Seeing two charismatic and adventurous souls reduced to nearly wordless squabbling speaks volumes about living with ALS.

There’s a richly comic streak to the film, too, as Gleason, Varisco and family friend and designated caregiver Blair Casey use humor to offset their situation, and the film makes a viewer feel like a part of what Varisco describes as their “badass unit” — which only makes the story’s more serious elements hit even harder.

Since the project has its origins in the birth of Gleason’s son, Rivers, it’s only appropriate that Tweel (who edited with Brian Palmer) uses the relationship between fathers and sons to shape the narrative. Gleason’s own father, Mike, admits that his son grew up in a “pretty dysfunctional marriage” and his own coping journey — from visiting a faith healer to revealing his greatest challenge is accepting his son might die — is among the film’s most moving threads.

But there are many such threads expertly woven into a piece that earns its place in the pantheon of male weepies several times over. That’s not to say there’s a gender barrier to being touched by Gleason’s struggles, but simply that this is a film grown men of any background will not be ashamed to admit moves them to tears. As if to prove that point, Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder chokes up on camera when superfan Gleason conducts a pointed interview about Vedder’s nonexistent relationship with his father.

Vedder’s bandmate Mike McCready provides the original song “Hoping and Healing,” which complements several well-chosen tracks including two from Pearl Jam and the Head and the Heart’s “Rivers and Roads.” The overall tech package is solid enough, but the draw here is the sheer volume of footage Gleason made available — so much that extra material carries over throughout the entire end credits.

Sundance Film Review: 'Gleason'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 28, 2016. Running time: 111 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) An Amazon/Open Road Films release of an IMG and Dear Rivers Prods. presentation of a Seth Gordon production. Produced by Seth Gordon, Kimi Culp, Scott Fujita, Mary Rohlich, Tom Lavia, Thomas McEachin, Kevin Lake. Executive producers, Mark Shapiro, Will Staeger, Paul Varisco Sr. Co-­producers, Shannon E. Riggs, Ann Preibe, Justin Bergeron. Co-­executive producer, Drew Brees.

Crew: Directed by Clay Tweel. Story, Seth Gordon, Tweel. Camera (color, HD), Ty Minton-Small, David Lee; editors, Tweel, Brian Palmer; music, Dan Romer, Saul Simon MacWilliams; music supervisor, Dan Wilcox; supervising sound editor, Rick Larimore; re-recording mixers, Mark Rozett, James Scullion.

With: Steve Gleason, Michel Varisco, Blair Casey, Mike Gleason, Paul Varisco Sr., Scott Fujita, Drew Brees, Mike McCready, Eddie Vedder, Rivers Varisco Gleason.

More Film

  • China Film Group's Jiang Ping

    Shanghai: China Studio Chiefs Debate Winter Chills and U.S. Rivalry

    The Shanghai International Film Festival pulled off the impressive feat of assembling leading executives from seven of China’s top film studios. Their discussion focused on the problems that have recently beset the production sector and the industry’s relationship with Hollywood. “The film industry achieved great things in 2018, but it was also the year that [...]

  • Chinese President Xi Jinping claps while

    Propaganda Films to Dominate Chinese Theaters in Anniversary Year

    A presentation at the Shanghai International Film Festival on Sunday shed light on the welter of propaganda films that will compete with Hollywood blockbusters for the attention of Chinese cinema goers in the second half of this year. This year is laden with political significance for China’s ruling Communist Party. It is 100 years since [...]

  • Leung Chiu-wai

    Tony Leung to Star in Shanghai Film Group's 'Fox Hunt' Police Action Film

    Hong Kong’s Tony Leung Chiu-wai and mainland China’s Duan Yihong will head the cast of the Shanghai Film Group’s upcoming “Fox Hunt.” The film is based on real live events and depicts the activities of Operation Fox Hunt, a worldwide anti-corruption initiative managed by China’s Ministry of Public Security. The operation seeks to find and [...]

  • Wings Over Everest

    Terence Chang's 'Wings Over Everest' Set to Swell China's Rescue Film Genre

    “Wings over Everest,” a new action adventure film from veteran producer Terence Chang and “Wolf Warrior 2” producer Lu Jianmin, is poised to join the burgeoning Chinese sub-genre of rescue movies.   The Chinese- and English-language film stars Chinese actress Zhang Jingchu (“Project Gutenberg”; “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation”), Japanese actor Koji Yakusho (“Babel”; “Memoirs of a [...]

  • The Eight Hundred (The 800)

    China Film Marketing Firms Must Adapt To Internet Age, Says Huayi's Jerry Ye

    Huayi Brothers Pictures CEO and media group VP Jerry Ye made no mention Sunday of the abrupt cancellation of the premiere for his firm’s highly anticipated war epic “The Eight Hundred,” which was set to be the Shanghai Intl. Film Festival’s opening film the night before. Instead, he looked to the future at a panel [...]

  • The Meg

    Chinese Script Development Requires A Different Touch, Top Producers Say

    Leading film producers highlighted the challenges of developing good scripts in China and abroad at a panel during the Shanghai International Film Festival on Sunday. Wanda Media GM Jiang Wei (aka Wayne Jiang) recommended that producers remain aware of the real differences between the scriptwriting process for Chinese productions versus international and co-productions. The fundamental [...]

  • Lou Ye's "Spring Fever"

    Shanghai: Previously-Banned Producer Nai An Now Hails Chinese Film Funding

    At a panel on indie film production at the Shanghai Intl. Film Festival, Chinese and foreign producers discussed the shifting funding landscape for their projects over the years. Nai An, the longtime collaborator of controversial sixth generation Chinese filmmaker Lou Ye, kicked off the talk with a look back at her producing career, which has [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content