Stronger (United States, 2017)

September 21, 2017
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Stronger Poster

Stronger is a based-on-a-true-story account of the post-terrorist attack travails of Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), who became to many the “face” of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing victims. Immortalized by a photograph taken by Charles Krupa that appeared on the front page of many newspapers, Bauman became the best-known of the survivors and the one who got the lion’s share of attention. Stronger, a memoir co-written by Bauman and Bret Witter, forms the backbone of John Pollono’s screenplay. Although at times fictionalized to make for a more cinematic retelling, the movie is largely accurate and rigorously avoids exploitation.

Stronger is more about the process of recovery than the actual wounding. One-third of Strong happens before and on the day of the bombing. The rest of the movie is about how Bauman coped (or in some cases didn’t cope) with what had happened to him. The film doesn’t use him as a metaphor, which is how the media sometimes portrayed him. His “healing” isn’t representative of the healing of the city. His “strength” isn’t Boston’s strength personified. He is presented as a human being struggling to come to grips with his injury who becomes resentful of the celebrity status he has acquired.

The movie opens with a short prologue that introduces us to the principals. There’s Jeff, a good-natured Costco employee and die-hard Red Sox fan who plans to spend Patriots Day in a local bar watching the game. His ex-girlfriend, Erin (Tatiana Maslany), intends to run the marathon. When he learns this, Jeff, who desperately wants to get back together with her, decides he will make a sign and greet her at the finish line. Jeff’s overbearing, uncouth mother, Patty (Miranda Richardson), badgers her son to do things for her when he stops by the house to make the sign.

The bombing is presented in an oblique fashion by David Gordon Green, who eschews the obvious, special effects-oriented approach to the event. We see the explosions in the distance from Erin’s perspective. Only in flashbacks are we presented with glimpses of what Jeff saw in the immediate aftermath. Stronger never devolves into disaster porn. It’s a careful, tasteful approach to a sequence that could have turned into something less savory.

Jeff loses both legs as a result of the attack. When he awakens in the hospital, he shows evidence of a gallows humor, remarking on his resemblance to Forrest Gump’s Lieutenant Dan. Erin remains by his side during his hospital stay, although there is obvious tension between her and Patty. For the most part, he seems to be healing well – physically, psychologically, and emotionally. Once he goes home, however, the cracks show. His drinking increases in frequency and intensity. He becomes moody. Erin, influenced as much by her own guilt as by her concern, moves in with him – an act that results in more instability in the household.

Arguably, the most interesting character isn’t Jeff, it’s Erin. Jeff’s trauma is visible and the stages he goes through are similar to those of everyone who suffers a serious injury. (Consider similarities between him and the woman played by Marion Cotillard in Rust and Bone, a fictional story about a double amputee.) For Erin, however, everything is internalized. Her emotional state is no less tenuous than his. At times, we’re not sure whether she’s with him because she loves him or because she feels pity, grief, and guilt. Their relationship is not what would be classified as “healthy”. In real life, the two separated in early 2017.

Jake Gyllenhaal, as usual, does a workmanlike job. He finds the gray in the character’s spectrum. Jeff is often bellicose and self-centered and occasionally emotionally abusive. He is far from a model patient and is prone to outbursts of temper. Tatiana Maslany, known for playing multiple roles in the cult TV series Orphan Black, invests Erin with a wealth of complexity in playing a character who wants desperately to do the right thing but who is pushed to the breaking point.

Ultimately, Stronger is intended to be uplifting and, as a result of what happens toward the end, it succeeds in that aim. Its approach to the Boston Marathon bombings is less problematic than the one presented in Patriots Day since it’s less concerned with the act of terrorism than with the human price. Well-acted and confidently directed by Green, the film fills the September “Sully slot” by providing an inspirational story based on a true event with long-shot Oscar aspirations.

Stronger (United States, 2017)

Director: David Gordon Green
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Miranda Richardson, Clancy Brown, Carlos Sanz
Home Release Date: 2017-12-19
Screenplay: John Pollono, based on the book “Stronger” by Jeff Bauman and Bret Witter
Cinematography: Sean Bobbitt
Music: Michael Brook
U.S. Distributor: Roadside Attractions
Run Time: 1:52
U.S. Release Date: 2017-09-22
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Disturbing Images, Profanity, Sexual Content, Nudity)
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1