Synopsis – Stronger is the inspiring real life story of Jeff Bauman, an ordinary man who captured the hearts of his city and the world to become a symbol of hope following the infamous 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.
My Take – A tragedy just doesn’t affect the person involved, but also the people around them. On April 15, 2013, the city of Boston changed forever. What began as a day of celebration, with all eyes on the Boston Marathon, quickly turned into anguish, as two homemade bombs detonated near the finish line, which leads to loss of life and for many, injuries and lost limbs. In the aftermath of the tragedy, symbols of strength emerged & one of the most iconic images from the day features a man, Jeff Bauman, whose photo in New York Times, showing him being taken away in a wheelchair by a man in a cowboy hat, Carlos Arredondo, became iconic. Responding to widespread interest in his story, he joined forces with best-selling author Bret Witter to write what became the 2014 book, which is the basis for this film. Honestly this was not the film I expected. I went in for this one expecting something akin to Bleed for This, which is to say a formulaic biopic with a standard fall/rise story progression and a strong lead performance, but what I actually ended up seeing is a a biopic that bucks the usual biographical drama format and generates real emotional investment, along with one of the year’s best lead actor performances. I also think it’s unfair to compare this film to Patriots Day (which also takes place during the Boston Marathon), since they are entirely different features, but they will inevitably be pitted against each other in terms of quality. Luckily, both films are fantastic and present two completely different sides of the story, therefore both are worthy of being made. I was certainly moved to tears more than once in Patriots Day, but there’s something truly special about this David Gordon Green directed film, mainly as it is quiet but powerful, and keeps its focus on one unbelievable story without forgetting the importance of everyone banning together in Boston following the terrorist attack at the 2013 marathon.
The story follows Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), an unremarkable, sports-loving Bostonian who works at Costco and loves his hometown sports teams – especially the Red Sox – to the point of superstition and even obsession. Living in a modest apartment with his divorced alcoholic mother, Patty (Miranda Richardson), Jeff has his heart set on winning back his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany) and in order to impress her he promises to wait for her at the finish line of Marathon she is running at. On the very day, as Jeff’s waiting for Erin at the end of the course, a man bumps into him and just as Jeff turns to look at the guy who is walking away, two explosions occur hereby destructing the whole event. Along with the other victims, Jeff is immediately rushed to the hospital, where he wakes up with Hurley, his father (Clancy Brown), and his other relatives at his side, only to find that his legs are gone. Instead of fuming over his loss, he calls for the FBI to provide a detailed physical description of one of the bombers, an information which led directly to the identification of one of the brothers responsible for this atrocity. Immediately, Jeff was hailed as a hero – both locally and nationally. Obviously, not only Jeff’s but also the lives of those closest to him are changed forever. We see the pain and discomfort that Jeff’s injuries cause him – both in the hospital and when he finally gets to come home – and we follow him as he adjusts to life without legs and begins the long and difficult recovery process. He receives gifts and well wishes from all over the world, he’s greatly in demand for media interviews and he is given the opportunity to make public appearances at Bruins and Red Sox games. He goes along with much of it, but he really doesn’t want any of it. He doesn’t even want to meet with Carlos (Carlos Sanz), the man who saved his life. Jeff says that he doesn’t want to be reminded of the worst day of his life. Jeff wants to walk again, but he approaches the challenge half- heartedly. He needs the love and support of his family, his friends and, especially Erin, even though he often treats them unkindly and even pushes them away, as he doesn’t want to be famous or inspirational, but just want things back to how they were. Director David Gordon Green is responsible for such different film projects as Our Brand Is Crisis, Manglehorn, and Pineapple Express. He may seem an odd choice to adapt the film, but the story is so moving and heart-warming, and the three lead actors are so good that we immediately connect with each of them. Much of the film is Jeff as a pendulum, swinging between the depression and dependency that we see subtly affects so much of his family and the promise of growth and maturity represented by his relationship with Erin, which is reignited over the course of his recovery.
Jeff’s detachment from his family members is amplified whenever he overhears them from another room discussing his potential media opportunities, cheering when one of the bombing suspects he identified is caught, or carrying on about how his sacrifice wasn’t for naught. As those closest to him increasingly treat him like some sort of prop, Jeff leans more on Erin for empathy and assistance. And it’s at this point that the film increasingly fixates on the binding qualities of love, and without idealizing Jeff and Erin’s relationship. In fact, director Green goes to great lengths to show how this relationship is complicated by Jeff’s lingering immaturity and PTSD, as well as by Erin’s frustrations at his unwillingness to put in all the work that’s necessary for him to fully recover. Throughout, their love is deeply intertwined with trauma, and so it’s only natural that many of their most tender, affectionate exchanges occur during painful medical procedures and extensive rehab sessions as they do in the bedroom. The story itself is predictable and manipulative, yet emotionally gripping. Where the film truly succeeds is in avoiding the clichés of most biopics by making our hero too heroic and unreal. However, Gordon‘s direction is concise and insightful. He never allows the film to weaken. His film doesn’t flinch from the ugly side of Jeff’s rehabilitation, his dysfunctional family, and his sacrifices just to lead a normal life. It wisely covers the issue of instant fame and becoming a pawn for network news, a necessary symbol of courage for a nation, even if our hero wants none of that adoration. In terms of Bauman’s physical and mental struggles, the film does not hesitate to show his agony. In an instant, he loses both of his legs and has to learn how to adjust to his new life. There are some who might shy away from these scenes of trauma, but it was important for those making the film to include them. The film does end on an inspirational false note, as most film biopics do, in a scene at the ballpark that takes a misstep into gross sentimentality and an unabashed shout-out to patriotism, which I personally felt was quite unnecessary after going through the whole ordeal. Carlos Arredondo and his cowboy hat and heroics are also given much-deserved space here. His back story is heart-breaking, and a reminder that everyone has a story and each of us can be a hero in some way. But the main story always remains compelling and the acting is superb. This is a biopic that rarely feels as such. On the back of a great direction and brilliantly acted lead work, there’s a strong base that makes this real-life story every bit as resonant as it should be. Jake Gyllenhaal is as great as he was in similarly emotional roles. Here, Gyllenhaal shows why he falls into the latter category. He brings a charm and magnetism to the role that most actors can’t recreate and as an added bonus, when Gyllenhaal steps into a role he brings the years of goodwill he’s accrued throughout his career. Though Gyllenhaal is making the clearest bid for the big awards performance and deserves any accolades it brings him, Tatiana Maslany’s performance was the one that floored me. Maslany’s performance becomes a calming force for Gyllenhaal and she is equally as engrossing in a role that offers far less in the way of dramatic fireworks. Carlos Sanz is excellent and handles a touching scene with complete nuance, it’s heartbreaking. Miranda Richardson, as Jeff’s boozy mother, gives in a memorable performance, so does Clancy Brown. On the whole, ‘Stronger’ is a remarkably excellent film with strong performances & a screenplay that works on many emotional levels, hereby making it one of the year’s most satisfying dramas.
Directed – David Gordon Green
Rated – R
Run Time – 116 minutes