Pain endures. But determination is everlasting. Disaster strikes the city of Boston, Massachusetts on the date of April 15th, 2013 during one of the city’s most cherished celebrations in the Boston Marathon. The Boston Marathon bombing leads to loss of life and for many, injuries and lost limbs. One of those people falling in the latter category is Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), who was attending the race to get back in good with his on-again, off again girlfriend, Erin (Tatiana Maslany).
A day after being amputated and treated for his lost legs, Jeff describes the people who committed the act, and becomes a hero in the process after their capture/death. But, as Jeff soon realizes, it’s a long road back to not only walking again, but general normalcy. Being a symbol can be a burden, and nothing can ever truly be the same as it once was. Physically and emotionally, Jeff and everyone around him will have to get Stronger to deal with the hand they’ve been dealt.
Stronger is not the movie I expected. What did I expect? Something akin to Bleed for This, which is to say a formulaic biopic with a standard fall/rise story progression and a strong(er) lead performance. What I actually got? 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. Stronger emerges as the fall season’s first legitimate awards contender.
There’s an alternate universe where Stronger would be overly contrived and even exploitative, sort of like the actual movie poster. While a moment or two of forcedness or ill-timed levity exists, director David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express, Joe) never approaches this story in that matter. The act of the bombing isn’t played up for shock value, neither is the removal of Jeff’s bandages. Even the requisite moment that many of these movies have when the seminal “recovery” act is performed by the lead character accompanied by a swelling orchestral piece is thankfully absent. Directing-wise, Green has a way of putting the camera in the right places and focused on the right things while rightfully defocusing and/or obscuring what is too excessive. Stronger likely will not garner any technical merit, but DGG shows respect for the story and subject by going about it in this fashion.
And going about it in this fashion allows Stronger to truly tug at the heartstrings, but not entirely for the reasons expected. Stronger is a moving watch partly due to the tragedy of the Boston Bombing and what it did to Bauman, but that is only a part of the entire story. Similar movies would tell their stories and lead character in A to B form, with their lead characters only being defined by “getting back what they lost.”
Gordon Green has no fear in delving into the uncomfortable depths of Jeff Bauman and those around him, particularly his family and mother, Patty, played by an opportunistic and disheveled Miranda Richardson. For long stretches, Jeff can be unlikable and his mother insufferable. But, Green and screenplay writer John Pollono give reasons for them being as such. The exploration of symbols and even overnight celebrity allow the main characters to be that much more three-dimensional than initially envisioned at first glance.
Impressive writing does a lot for Stronger, but so does Jake Gyllenhaal, yet again adding another impressive role to his resume. Like his director, his performance never feels exploitative or in bad taste. But, he lets us in on the tortuous anguish. The most basic of tasks and PTSD flashbacks are excruciating to watch at times, as are the flaws in his character, leading to standout second and third act scenes. Remains to be seen if this is the one that finally gets him that elusive Best Actor nom (very early), but he should be in the conversation. His chemistry with Tatiana Maslany is outstanding, herself delivering work that goes well beyond the supportive girlfriend role. Their evolving relationship never gets old and is hardly ever sappy. It feels real and in the moment.
Stronger 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.
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