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GLEASON

 (The 2016 SXSW Film Festival kicked off March 11 and wrapped up on the 19th yet the reviews are still coming in. Stay tuned to HtN throughout the week!)

If, like me, you do not follow professional football, or even professional sports (I know, this makes me distinctly un-American), then the name Steve Gleason may mean absolutely nothing to you. I, myself, was completely unfamiliar with both the man and his career before watching Gleason, the new documentary from Clay Tweel (Finders Keepers). What had caught my eye was the plot summary, which makes clear that the movie is about its subject’s struggle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (or ALS). I worried about the potentially mawkish nature of such a tale, but was also intrigued by Mr. Gleason’s apparently resolute will to live his remaining life to the fullest.

I am happy to report that the film is mostly a triumph, though not without the occasional descent into maudlin sentimentality (through its use of completely unnecessary soundtrack music). What we see on-screen is both remarkable and absolutely devastating: the video diary of a once-robust athlete wasting away and losing the power of speech in the course of just a few years. As a cinematic chronicle of a physically destructive disease, it is virtually unparalleled. Gleason’s decision to start filming himself early on – as well as his willingness to keep the cameras on even after he is no longer in control of his body – makes this movie a thorough and powerful testament to his character and to the struggles, defeats and, yes, victories of all who similarly suffer.

For this is not just a movie about one man, alone in a wheelchair. Shortly after Gleason is diagnosed, he and his wife, Michel, discover that she is pregnant, and we follow that story trajectory from the birth of their son, Rivers, all the way to his 4th birthday. As much as Gleason’s pain is on constant display, his tragedy is also extremely difficult on Michel. We see their arguments and her fatigue as much as we see their shared love and affection. We also see how Gleason is able to use his name and connections to form a non-profit organization – Team Gleason – that is able to provide help to others afflicted with ALS. Even as his own situation deteriorates, Gleason is always thinking beyond himself.

Which brings us back to football. Though I may not be a fan of big-team sports, I see in Steve Gleason an embodiment of the best qualities of the professional athlete, who always considers the needs of the team above his own. In his 2001-2008 career for the New Orleans Saints, Gleason was perhaps best known for a 2006 blocked punt in the Superdome that inspired local residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He gave of his best then, and has not stopped giving of his best now, even as he battles a debilitating (and usually fatal) disease. Once an inspiration, always an inspiration.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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