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‘Gleason’ documentary a stark look at a realistic hero

Former New Orleans Saints safety Steve Gleason appears with his son Rivers and wife Michel in a scene from the documentary "Gleason." | Open Road Films via AP

A lot of sports-themed films put a heroic, inspirational spin on the proceedings. You cheer, shed a few tears, and move on.

That’s so not “Gleason.”

The documentary focuses on Steve Gleason, a retired NFL player who was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis when he was 34. Six weeks later, he discovers that he and his wife, Michel Varisco, are expecting their first child.

Gleason decides to create a video diary as a message to his unborn son. There is also video shot by two friends who help care for him. The combination of footage forms the documentary, which can be emotionally wrenching.

It’s not that the filmmakers are going for the tear ducts (though they are guilty of that, on occasion). Instead, it’s watching the debilitating condition — also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease — attack Gleason’s body. His steps become unsteady, and eventually he can’t walk. He loses the ability to speak and relies on a speech-generating device, similar to what Stephen Hawking uses.

You also watch how his spirit is affected. Initially, he seems slightly hopeful he can possibly beat the odds, but that gradually dims as the nightmarish reality sets in. In one sequence, he visits a faith healer, and his curious optimism is heartbreaking.

You see, Gleason become an activist for other people with neurological disorders, and he establishes a charitable foundation called Team Gleason. The Steve Gleason Act, which makes speech-generating devices available to ALS patients on Medicare, passed in 2014. This aspect of his life is dutifully covered, and his determination is admirable.

Still, director Clay Tweel doesn’t seem interested in depicting Gleason as a one-note, heroic figure. Gleason can be difficult and demanding; in one sequence, he uses passive-aggressive techniques to try to provoke a fight with his weary spouse. She simply seems too exhausted to even participate.

Varisco, who initially seems a bit bohemian and free spirited, is greatly affected. She becomes thin and drawn, and the rigors of caring for both an infant and her ailing husband seem overwhelming (you watch the film and hope she has a good therapist). You imagine handling the couple’s finances is a major horror, but the movie never really touches on how they afford the medical bills.

Still, virtually everything else about the couple appears to be there, on screen. “Gleason” is disturbing, brave and compelling, which is exactly what it needs to be.

Arizona Republic

★★★

Amazon Studios and Open Road Films present a film directed by Clay Tweel. Written by Tweel and Seth Gordon. Running time: 120 minutes. Rated R (for language). Opening Friday at Landmark Century.