LIONSGATE / ROADSIDE ATTRACTIONS (2017)
Director: David Gordon Green
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Miranda Richardson, Clancy Brown
April 15th, 2013 was a dark day for Boston.
Two homemade bombs decimated the crowds cheering on the runners at the finish line of that year’s marathon, taking and shattering lives all in the name of cowardly terrorism. 2016’s Patriots Day took the event and gave it the dramatic, OTT Hollywood sheen (complete with Mark Wahlberg), whereas, with Stronger, David Gordon Green focuses on the internal struggle by one of the surviving victims of the attack – Jeff Bauman.
What a story it is, too.
Jeff Bauman (Gyllenhaal) is a normal guy. He works at Costco, loves his Boston sports teams and drinks beer with friend and families whenever he can. His on-off girlfriend, Erin Hurley (Maslany), is running the Boston Marathon and despite Jeff’s drunken promise to be there at the finish line, she has no faith in his statement. Jeff does make it to the finish line, with a large handwritten sign ready to be proudly displayed, but tragedy strikes as two homemade bombs explode – and the ensuing blasts rob Jeff of his legs. As Jeff comes to terms with his body, the world sees him as a symbol (he came to represent the “Boston Strong” wave) and a hero – something his family seem very happy to exploit – and his highs and crashing lows are shared and felt by his family and especially Erin as they all rally around Jeff to help him through his crushing ordeal.
Stronger deals with Jeff’s struggle, as well as his new found hero status, from the moment of the attack until the flowers of optimism begin to bloom and doesn’t shy away from the heavy, personal aspect of the inspirational story. The bombing itself is only shown very quickly, and is revisited in brief flashbacks, as Green opts for depth over dramatization. The feeling throughout is that whilst Jeff is hailed as a hero, his incredulous response is essentially, “but what for? What makes me brave and lucky?” Being a normal guy and suddenly being thrust into the worldwide gaze must be intense and it’s portrayed very well here. How the situation affects Jeff’s nearest and dearest is also brilliantly handled without demonising or romanticising anyone involved. Green isn’t afraid to really delve into the psychological and physical torment, either, as Jeff’s struggles with using the toilet, showering and getting about are highlighted, and a scene of him crawling across the car park to his home is intensely framed.
Leading from the front, Gyllenhaal and Maslany are incredible individually and together in Stronger. Gyllenhaal’s powerful performance drips with intensity as he flows between acceptance and utter despondency and anger without ever feeling like an impersonation, and Maslany’s range of emotions is handled with a depth and nuance that resonates strongly. Their scenes together range from playful to romantic to downright confrontational – the scene where Erin reveals she is pregnant to Jeff is brutally raw and viscerally acted. Side note, as a chain-smoking alcoholic, Miranda Richardson plays wonderfully against type as Jeff’s mother, Patty.
As the movie depicts the weeks and months following the attack, there’s a real montage feeling to Stronger at times as Jeff is shuffled between hospital appointments, rehab, public appearances (including flag-waving at a Boston Bruins NHL game and throwing the ceremonial first pitch at a Red Sox match), getting drunk with friends and his tempestuous relationship with Erin. The movie never really feels disjointed because of this, but the time jumps can be noticeable only after the scenes have played out for a while. The pacing in the mid-section is slightly awry as it focuses on Jeff’s decline, but necessary in order to tell the true to life story. Jeff’s story does appear to follow a movie-ready arc, however, the sheer inspiration of his meeting with Carlos (the man how effectively saved his life in the immediate aftermath of the bombing) and well-wishers in the foyer of Fenway park negate any need to go further with the point – this is a true story, therefore it’s even more rousing and incredible that these moments really happened.
There’s a real authenticity to the way the move is presented (the actual doctors that performed on Jeff are cast in this film in the same roles) and I appreciated the ending, it was optimistic without being overly manipulative – if you will. Stronger is a fine example of how to deliver a human tragedy drama – especially one that’s so recent – by adopting the 'naturalistic not nationalistic' approach and the movie is all the better for it. Honest, gritty, emotional and genuine, Stronger is a real triumph.
December 7th 2017