Release: Friday, September 29, 2017
Written by: John Pollono
Directed by: David Gordon Green
David Gordon Green’s tribute to one of the survivors of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing is a cathartic experience. Though it treats its subject with respect and dignity, the film holds nothing back in its depiction of a life suddenly and violently interrupted. Technically, Peter Berg beat Green to the punch by breaking cinematic ground on the event with his Patriots Day late last year, but it’s the latter whose film leaves the more lasting impression.
Stronger manifests as the cinematic memoir of Jeff Bauman (played by a mop-haired Jake Gyllenhaal), based upon his written account which was published on the one-year anniversary of the bombing. As such, Green is given the freedom to tell the story like it is. His direction remains sensitive but above all committed to telling the blunt honest truth. As the movie ratchets down into an intensely personal journey that brings audiences through a turbulent period in a young man’s life, it also poses some difficult questions about what it means and how it feels to be considered a real-world hero.
As we come to appreciate, surviving trauma is just the first step. Moving on is like learning to walk again — and in some cases, it literally is learning to walk again. The best of Stronger, much like Patriots Day, unfolds in the aftermath rather than in the anticipated verisimilitude of the carnage that turned sidewalks into MASH units (though there’s much less ‘action’ in the former than the latter). The crux of the drama revolves around attitude and how it shapes one’s perception of reality. Bauman became an overnight hero to the people of greater Boston when information he provided helped the FBI bring one of the two Tsarnaev brothers to justice. His detailed description of the man he saw near the finishing line came only hours after waking from surgery which required the amputation of both his legs above the knee.
Bauman’s journey to find his best self necessarily means having to endure his worst. The film doesn’t try to pretend the hero always does heroic things, and that kind of honesty tends to move you, and not to the concessions stand either. But the story wouldn’t be as effective without performances to carry the weight or the bravery to tell that truth. Gyllenhaal‘s trademark commitment to the craft makes so many of the images down the road to both physical and mental recovery simply unforgettable. This could be career best work (from an actor I keep saying this could be career-best work from, every time I see him in a movie).
But really, I mean it this time. Maybe.
As Bauman, he’s a potential front-runner for MVP of the early Oscar season — once an ordinary Bostonian, a humble deli-counter worker at Cahstco who, like so many in this great American hahbah town, prioritizes his Red Sox over everything, especially his actual socks and even Sunday service. The character may be less flagrantly strange than many of his fans are accustomed to the actor portraying, but that doesn’t stop Gyllenhaal from throwing himself headlong into the role. His Zest for Life Meter is 100% into the green when we first meet him, an upbeat and outgoing young man who enjoys social commitments, even though he’s not so much of a fan of the capital-C commitments life often requires.
Just ask Erin (Tatiana Maslany), his many-times-before ex-girlfriend whom we meet at the bahh early on, to which Jeff defects early from work to catch a game. There we witness a demonstration of his gregariousness, as he convinces the entire room to donate to the cause for which Erin will soon be running in the upcoming race. But if clothes really do make the man, his natty attire says at least something about where he is in life. He vows to start changing his priorities by showing up at the finishing line and cheering on Erin the next day, though Erin will only believe it when she sees it.
The cruel twist of fate that intervenes reestablishes personal connections in ways that are both heartwarming and heartbreaking. Family comes together, but more often than not it’s in a physical, bodies-filling-the-room sense. The pros and cons of instant celebrity are meanwhile examined as Bauman’s right to privacy vanishes in the same overnight period. The sacrifice comes largely at the behest of his opportunistic mother, who increasingly embraces the spotlight on behalf of her son. Ma’s portrayed by Miranda Richardson in a performance that rivals both Maslany and Gyllenhaal in terms of intensity and emotional complexity. She rounds out the trio of most compelling performances, but support also comes from Clancy Brown as an emotionally distraught father overwhelmed both by what has happened to his son and what is going on with the Red Sox at the time (that season they’d go on to win the World Series, FYI).
The thing about the Jake Gyllenhaal Effect is that it makes neglecting other meaningful contributions too easy. A rising Canadian actress, Maslany turns in a performance that truly stands toe-to-toe with her male counterpart. She’s to Gyllenhaal what Felicity Jones was to Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything. Her portrayal dives well below the surface of what is flattering and pretty; her version of Erin comes equipped with her own set of ambitions, fears and flaws. As we watch a relationship once again sour, we’re offered a window into the past. We learn that sometimes emotional healing is more challenging than the physical. The neglect Erin suffers is proof positive that moving on is one process that does not occur overnight.
It’s also a reminder of the devastating, pervasive and often long-lasting effects psychological ailments like PTSD can have, and not just on the person directly suffering from them. Screenwriter and playwright John Pollono reinforces the message by including a scene that honors the good samaritan who ultimately saved Bauman’s life on that fateful day, whose efforts were captured in a now iconic photo — one of the triggers for millions to become emotionally invested in Bauman’s recovery. Though the man was presented on news networks as ‘Carlos,’ the guy in the cowboy hat, he appears in the movie as a beacon of hope — a broken man whose life story is something Bauman needs to hear.
Even if listening doesn’t change his day, much less his outlook on life, the simple act of listening is what is crucial. It’s a big step forward in trying to understand what it means to be “Boston Strong,” and nowhere is this evolution better illustrated than in the contrast drawn between Bauman’s two public appearances. His first, at the 2013 Stanley Cup Finals, is presented as a claustrophobic confrontation that does nothing other than provide shell-shock. At this point in time he’s unable to hear what’s being screamed at him. By the time he’s throwing out the first pitch for the Sox’s 2014 home opener — and maybe it’s something about the cool spring air — something has changed, something beyond the rich cinematic textures. Something pretty profound.
Turns out the hero doesn’t need a cape. A simple thumbs-up has the same effect.
Recommendation: Arguably career-best work from Jake Gyllenhaal makes Stronger the movie about the Boston Marathon bombing you need to see. Both this and Berg’s films are worthy of your time, but because of the intensely committed performances it is Stronger that becomes the more impactful, more enlightening experience. I love a good story about a modern-day, real-life hero and this is one of the best we’ve had lately.
Running Time: 116 mins.
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