Written for RAF News March 2017
When NFL linebacker Steve Gleason was diagnosed with ALS, the motor-neurone disease that has a life expectancy of 2-5 years, his wife Michel had just fallen pregnant. This was when Steve began keeping video diaries with the intention of sharing them with his son, should he not be around at the time of his birth.
This is how we are first introduced to Steve, talking to camera and delivering a message to his unborn child. This is a tragic premise for a documentary and one that seems unfairly saddening, but there is a lot more to it. Rather than provide a glossy overview in these diaries he attempts to delve into the reality of life, including talks of anxiety, divorce and therapy.
Clearly someone who thrives from being active and conquering his fears, Steve is determined to stay fighting while he is able, and even once he becomes near paralysed, he keeps fighting still. In fact Steve sets up the charity Team Gleason whose tag-line is ‘No White Flags’, providing aid to those who share his diagnosis, and helping to pursue their dreams and adventures in spite of their condition.
What might seem at first to be a documentary with the spirit of Americana, courage and positivity winning the battle, is quickly dispelled by the reality that is captured on camera. We see how Steve gets caught up in his charity work and neglects Michel, how he is attempting to have an honest relationship with his own son because he feels distant from his own father, a ‘wacky fundamental’ Christian who quotes scripture and always has a Bible on hand. There is one hard-to-watch scene that takes place in a faith-healing church that ignites the fear in everyone.
These conflicts are all set against the back drop of Steve losing his ability to function physically and the looming threat of death. Often the footage cuts through time, noticeable through the physical transformation of Steve. Needless to add that this documentary is deeply personal and emotional, and yet it is balanced in part by the humour of Steve and Michel. Gleason is an inspirational documentary, but not in the way you would expect.