***1/2 out of ****
(for strong language throughout, some graphic injury images, and brief sexuality/nudity)
Released: September 22, 2017
Runtime: 116 minutes
Director: David Gordon Green
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Miranda Richardson, Lenny Clarke, Clancy Brown, Danny McCarthy, Nate Richman, Richard Lane Jr., Carlos Sanz
Real world authenticity is a hallmark of David Gordon Green dramas (All The Real Girls, Snow Angels), each one elevated by philosophical reflections.
That track record makes him a perfect yet subtly subversive choice to bring the story of Jeff Bauman to the screen. Stronger is the dramatization of Bauman’s struggle to overcome the loss of his legs after the Boston Marathon terrorist bombing of 2013, but it’s not a typical Hollywood version.
In a brave choice of its own, Stronger becomes a deconstruction of what it means to be a hero. Even considering such an approach seems tone deaf, and possibly offensive, especially since movies that deconstruct popular, accepted ideals are often (and perhaps always) cynical. But not this one.
Stronger deconstructs the notion of what a hero is, but with grace and empathy. It’s inspiring because of its candor, not some contrived mythologizing. The point here isn’t that everyday heroes like Jeff Bauman don’t deserve our admiration or praise, or even our hagiography; they do. But what Stronger shows us – with stark intimacy – is that we must be careful not to burden our heroes with the weight of that label.
Jeff Bauman was your average blue collar Bostonian who found himself mere feet from the bomb that exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. His legs were obliterated from the knees down. Of all the people injured, he became a public figure because his proximity enabled Bauman to identify one of the bombers. That, coupled with his fight to walk again with the aid of prosthetic legs, made him the symbol of the rallying cry “Boston Strong”.
That fame, however, became more of a burden than a comfort. As if recovering from major trauma wasn’t enough, Bauman was working to repair his relationship with a woman, one he had sabotaged with his own arrested development. Becoming “a hero” didn’t instantly make him mature. Add to that the economic challenges of his own lower income family (with an alcoholic matriarch), and the yoke of “hero” became more than Bauman could bear.
An entire city began to track its own recovery with his, as if Bauman himself was the gauge. Even though that public solidarity was an expression of support and love for Jeff, that’s just too much responsibility for one man to carry. Stronger examines this in ways both tender and unflinching.
It asks necessary questions of us as a society but without indicting blame. It understands that these complexities are the result of very genuine human impulses, ones that come from the need to reconcile gruesome inhumanity with a practical faith that we can use to heal and move forward.
A part of that instinct is to incarnate a symbol of that struggle, to find a hero. Stronger doesn’t ask us to avoid finding heroes; it pastorally challenges us to reconsider what we expect from them.
Green’s approach removes the typical melodramatic polish. His movie doesn’t try to manipulate our emotions; he strives to legitimately capture theirs. Instead of constructing scenes for maximum dramatic effect, Green often lingers quietly at length on a specific character, allowing each to carry us through an entire moment. We don’t need multiple angles, reactions, or perspectives; a great performance is more than enough, and actually more convincing.
To that end, there’s at least three actors here worthy of serious Oscar consideration while others, in much smaller roles, deliver some of the film’s most effectively raw sentiments.
A recurring refrain in Jake Gyllenhaal’s career is “this is his best performance yet”. That applies once again here. Dialing back his penchant for intensity (and saving it for one crucial scene), Gyllenhaal achieves his most naturalistic and internalized acting to date while delivering a thoroughly credible Boston accent. This is a transformative performance that’s also his most believable.
Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black) imbues Jeff’s girlfriend Erin with her own necessary courage. She clearly loves this man, but to commit to him all the way requires several acts of faith, and occasional leaps, not just for the obvious challenge they face but also because Jeff’s never fully proven himself worthy of Erin’s fidelity. She’s fighting the fight no one sees, and is a hero in her own right. Their love story is as real as it gets.
Conversely there’s Jeff’s mother Patty, an alcoholic that Miranda Richardson doesn’t overplay for awards season clips. It’s a candid expression of Patty’s own brokenness. This native Brit, too, feels as if she’s walked right off the Boston streets.
Indeed, this whole Bostonian world is entirely authentic. That region is such a magnified culture, with big emotions and thick accents, it’s virtually inevitable that any depiction would slip into parody from time to time. Green’s movie and cast, however, never does.
In every regard, Stronger feels like a movie made by and with real Bostonians, even though key collaborators are not. Green doesn’t work overtime to make any of this “gritty” either. The entire milieu, down to every last beat, is completely honest.
“Boston Strong” would seem the appropriate title for this movie, yet Stronger is actually more fitting. That’s because “Boston Strong” is just a slogan, but “stronger” is a virtue. It’s one we see throughout this story, and through many people, right up to a heartbreaking confessional from the man who saved Bauman’s life.
Being “stronger” doesn’t mean we’re impervious to the trials that test our mettle, the ones that reveal how fragile life truly is. “Stronger” is a virtue that’s forged and earned from rising out of life’s darkest valleys, despite how easily we – or anyone – could’ve succumbed. Including heroes.