Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany and Miranda Richardson.
Directed by David Gordon Green.
I saw this film advertised ages ago as one of the previews in the cinema. I know a trailer can at times provide false hope and misrepresentation but for me, I was definitely keen to see for myself where this film would take us.
It’s always a difficult and controversial task to make a film based on real events, especially ones that not only happened not that long ago, but ones that caused mass devastation and trauma. The responsibility to do them justice is a mammoth ask, and I don’t think any so far have quite mastered it (United 93 and World Trade Centre to name a few). Stronger is one of these films, with its focus on Jeff Bauman, a survivor of the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013. Taken from his memoir, the film focuses on his journey of recovery after losing both his legs in the attack. The focus is on the aftermath rather than the event itself — the bombing happens within the first half hour and the two terrorists responsible are never named or shown on screen. This is not their story. It’s a survivor’s tale, and one that’s refreshingly, unafraid to portray the survivor in a negative light when the situation demands it.
Jeff is played by Jake Gyllenhaal with undeniable commitment. He is so dynamic and committed in his work – the flawed and conflicted characters he’s played in recent years have really put him a cut above the rest for me. Stronger is no different, with him displaying vulnerability and strength in equal measure. This talent is never more evident when Jeff is bestowed this huge responsibility of being the figure of hope for Boston, all while battling his inner demons. As he publicly becomes a symbol of the ‘Boston Strong’ ideal, privately he’s insecure, shirking his responsibilities and suffering from PTSD. It’s really hard to watch, and leaves you reeling and questioning how someone could possibly ever come to terms with what has happened. Gyllenhaal gathers up this thought towards the end of the film, where he is helplessly screaming for Erin from the floor outside his apartment block.
Bauman and his family are blue-collar Bostonians, and director David Gordon Green doesn’t shirk from this reality. Every scene with Jeff’s family crackles off the screen, offering the best and worst of a Boston working-class family. They might sometimes seem clichéd, but Green pulls no punches in a warts-and-all approach. I found this all very chaotic, but at times it actually helped me as a viewer to get through Jeff’s trauma. Erin too, the idea of feeling somewhat responsible (Jeff was there because of her) didn’t sit easy with me at all, all while being spoken to and treat like dirt by his over-bearing, alcoholic mother (Richardson – she’s epic in this role by the way). Erin’s uncertainty and guilt was so well portrayed by Tatiana Maslany. I found the chemistry between Maslany and Gyllenhaal very believable and genuine, and felt they both understood the complexities of the relationship.
It received mixed reviews, which surprised me. The criticism of predictability towards the end I agree with, but Jeff’s actual journey of recovery and where he sourced his motivation from really kept me hooked. It’s raw, harrowing and exhausting to watch at times, as we see Jeff attempt to pull his life together, and start a new life with artificial limbs. His humour was refreshing, and I can only imagine the strength and positivity that gave Jeff’s friends and family in real life. Things do veer into predictability in the final act as Jeff cleans up his act and begins to embrace the hero mantle with which he’s been bestowed. At this point, what started as a sensitive study on trauma and its aftershocks devolves into a conventional inspirational, ‘All American hero’ drama, and it’s less interesting because of it. I think There’s probably still a definitive movie to be made around the Boston bombings — although Stronger does come rather close.