With unflagging honesty and compassion, Clay Tweel's documentary Gleason charts the journey of former New Orleans Saints safety Steve Gleason as he copes with the ruinous nerve disease ALS, or Lou Gehrig's Disease. That description, however, can't quite do justice to Tweel's film, which is partly built around video journals the football player started making for his unborn son Rivers following the diagnosis. We witness the relentless progress of the disease as we watch Gleason go from being a garrulous, adventurous sports hero to a man who struggles even to breathe.
Steve's body is failing, but his consciousness is not, and it's tough to watch him slowly get locked inside his deteriorating body … and even tougher when you realize that he too is watching. There are moments of such raw, intimate anguish in this film that you can't help but turn away. But Gleason also finds purpose in establishing Team Gleason, a nonprofit designed to help others with ALS improve their lives and get access to critical technology. Slowly, he learns to use his wheelchair and the eye-tracking software that will allow him to speak in something resembling his own voice. Once he begins to talk again through this machine, his words are startlingly eloquent and nuanced.
So while Gleason is the slick, moving, sincere documentary you might expect from this material, there's something else going on beneath the Oscar-friendly polish: This is a remarkably physical film, emphasizing how important Steve's body becomes for him the more he loses it -- how much he needs to hug a family member after a fight, or to hold his wife and child, however briefly, at the end of the night.