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David Gordon Green’s Stronger is a film that understands the messy reality behind society’s ability to cultivate heroes in the aftermath of obscene tragedy. Average men and women are so often thrust into the spotlight and forced onto potentially precarious pedestals in the wake of mass shootings, natural disasters and man-made atrocities. This ‘hero-tag’ can be attached to life-savers, those who sacrificed themselves for others or in the case of this film, the label is given to someone who simply survives. A tear-jerker that earns its tears, Stronger explores the way in which frailties not only humanise ‘heroes’ but also cause them to struggle with the impossibly lofty standard put upon them by others.
Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler, Zodiac) plays real life Jeff Bauman, a decidedly ordinary if cocky Costco employee whose life was only ever going to change drastically if he found himself at the wrong place at the wrong time. That time came at the Boston Marathon in 2013, when two homegrown terrorists orchestrated a bombing attack near the finishing line that took the lives of 3 people, including one child, and injured hundreds more. Holding up a sign for the woman he loves, Bauman was mere feet from the blast when it happened and would have lost his life had it not been for the ingenuity of a stranger applying tourniquets to those in need. Although he survived, he ended up losing both of his legs in the explosion and faced a difficult road to physical, mental and emotional recovery.
The strength of Stronger lies in the scrutinising spotlight that’s shined on its lead character. Before the explosion altered his life, Bauman was—in a relatable way—a minorly flawed man, and Gordon Green is wise enough not to pretend that one disastrous event is going to change that overnight. Still living at home with his overbearing but loving mother and never being there for an on/off girlfriend (Tatiana Gabriele Maslany), Bauman had some growing up to do even before the bombing. Here, recovery is more of a journey than it is a destination.
Unlike in lesser films in which the all too human cracks are paved over miraculously and an unbelievable new lease on life arises, Bauman is instead filled first with a bitterness and temporary bouts of paralysing dread because of what happened to him. The bro-heavy Beantown culture meant he only really had Erin to confide in, to her understandably frustrated chagrin.
This isn’t to stay this still isn’t a sympathetic look into the life of a victim undeserving of a cruel fate but rather that it’s this mature attitude towards the character’s growth that ensures the emotional punches pack a wallop when they need to. And there are genuine, heart swelling scenes throughout Stronger. One touching example being when the audience (sort of) sees Bauman’s damaged limbs for the first time. The legs in question are kept out of focus as they are newly bandaged in a hospital, so as to mirror Bauman’s difficulty in accepting his new reality, as he has to look away and distract himself through intimate conversation with Erin. Thanks to a restrained sense of realism that’s also present throughout much of the film, it’s a deeply moving sequence.
Bauman became something of a symbol for the Boston Strong movement that arose in the city following the bombing and that celebrity was understandably not one he was quite comfortable with. While he was showered with praise for what he felt was little more than standing somewhere at an unfortunate time, he was quietly battling the demons that come with surviving a severe trauma. A panic attack occurring in an elevator right after displaying himself to a huge crowd at a local ice hockey stadium works as effective representation of the interior struggle he was facing while the exterior world took pride in his ability to keep calm and carry on.
But that scene is also an effective counterpoint to the film’s soul stirring emotional climax at yet another iconic city stadium. After being wheeled out in front the Fenway crowd at a Red Sox game, Bauman is approached by fellow Bostonians, who for whatever reason, feel the need to share their stories of relatives gone too soon. This time he listens and shakes their hands, accepting the need for the hope they see in his story. It runs the risk of mawkish sentimentality, but the scene works and the reason there won’t be a dry eye is because it run’s parallel to the characters growth: Bauman realises It was never about him, but them.
Gyllenhaal gives a career best turn here and should fancy his chances at securing a best actor nomination at all the major awards next year. He ensures that Bauman is a human being first, and a victim second. The physical demands of playing a paraplegic are met and then some as Gyllenhaal can convince us that just reaching for toilet paper is a hazard he really contended with. He brings a sincere ‘Bahston’ charm to Bauman’s more charismatic moments but he also nails the vulnerability of a near broken man. He either displays this explicitly when he’s self-isolated in bathrooms and corridors or implicitly when he’s surrounded by cameras, friends or strangers who want a piece of him.
Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black) is also superb as the devoted but overworked Erin and Gylenhall and they share a palpable chemistry that she should earn immense credit for. In moments like when Bauman wakes up with her beside him in the hospital, the sheer warmth of their shared, immediate intimacy pours out from the screen like it’s the only medicine he would ever need to get through this (“You should see my sign—it had 3D letters and everything”). Truth be told, save for the odd overreach, the times when the movie goes for the weepy jugular, the emotional truth cuts deep and it’s rare that these kinds of genre films do it this well.
Gordon Green’s directorial touch is one that doesn’t sugar-coat the set-backs found when seeking a sense of recuperation after suffering a life-altering trauma. The commitment to a subdued but believable look at the tests Bauman faces, both of character and physically is such that the eventual scenes of sentiment are all the ‘stronger’ for it. Call it sappy if you dare, but I found Stronger to be sapping, in all the right ways.