Gleason could have been a documentary about a few things: the life of an ALS patient, the ongoing formation of a legacy for a pro-athlete, the creation of a charity. But it makes one thing, the most compelling thing, its center: fatherhood. Steve Gleason is an ALS patient, a former pro-athlete and a founder of a charity that has changed health care legislation in America, but the role that is focused on in Gleason is the one he shares with millions of men.

The film gives a bit of background for those who were not following his football career or his philanthropy. A Washington native who eventually went on to play in the NFL for the New Orleans Saints, Steve had the beginning narrative of many pro athletes. After retiring in 2008, three years later he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a disease more commonly known by the name of another famous sportsman, Lou Gehrig. Six weeks after diagnosis Steve and his wife Michel learned they were to become parents.

What is remarkable, and what ultimately makes Gleason such a captivating, harrowing film, is the footage that Steve was able to hand over to filmmaker Clay Tweel. Steve had made the decision when he found out about the pregnancy to record video blogs that his child could one day watch, as he knew that the likelihood that he would be able to have real conversations by the time the child was grown was slim to none. Much of the documentary is other footage – interviews with his wife and family, inside footage from doctor’s appointments and procedures, videos of trips taken and family moments shared. There is even footage from the birth of the child, a boy who Steve and Michel name Rivers. But each time Steve sits head on with the camera, making an attempt to give his son life lessons or insight into who Rivers’ father is, it is the kind of hard to watch that makes eyes sting but smiles spread. In one scene Steve speaks into the camera as Michel sleeps in the background, Rivers kicking away next to her. It is at the same time lovely and painful, as it is clear that as the baby grows up and gets stronger, Steve weakens and loses control of his muscles and speech.

What makes the documentary so powerful is that it doesn’t leave out what would be easy to overlook, following Steve’s lead by not sugarcoating anything. When telling his son through the camera that they may never have a real conversation, he responds to himself; “It’s fucked up.” It really, truly is. Michel opens up, too, admitting that sometimes she could be doing a better job, though the audience is watching an incredibly strong woman care for a child and a patient with love and patience. It’s exhausting to watch but only because it is abundantly clear how exhausting it is to live.

What is just as “fucked up” as the cards dealt to this generous, lively couple is watching the other father-son relationship develop and sometimes devolve on screen. Steve had a rocky time with his dad growing up, something he no doubt looked forward to correcting in raising his own child someday, a goal he is accomplishing every time he opens up in his video blogs. Steve interviews his dad, tries to understand his religious fanaticism and eventually confronts him in one of the most disturbing moments. Watching them work through their differences intensifies the want for Steve to succeed in being the father he wants to be for Rivers.

Tweel smartly crafts the rest of the story – the sports, the charity, the husband-wife relationship – around the fatherhood theme, one that parents, even completely healthy ones, can learn from. Steve makes that lesson clear in one of his videos to Rivers. “Fundraisers and all of that stuff, really none of that is as important is this, as me passing myself to you…Because that’s what dads do. They pass stuff on, the best of themselves on to their kids.” If this is true, Gleason proves that Rivers is bound to grow up to be a pretty spectacular person.

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