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For the first half of David Gordon Green’s film Stronger, based on the book of the same name by Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), who lost both his legs in the Boston Marathon Bombing, the film weaves an intricate and delicate story about a victim made an icon; Bauman awakes, his legs having been amputated, and scribbles out on a notepad that he saw the bomber. From there his face is one not just associated with the tragedy, but with the idea of “Boston Strong” that rose from the flames of the fateful terrorist attack. Bauman never set out to be seen as a hero; he worked a nine to five job at Costco, he drank beers with his friends who dropped homophobic slurs at their regular dive bar, and he was perpetually late, never arriving when his girlfriend, Erin (Tatiana Maslany) needed him to just show up. He was a mess, a self-aware one, perhaps, but one all the same. He, like anyone else thrust into his position, wasn’t ready for the limelight that would surround him following such a devastating day of his life.
It’s these diversions into his day-to-day routine–the struggle he faces performing some of life’s most thoughtless tasks such as using the bathroom, going to step out of bed in the morning before realizing that’s no longer an option, and the notoriety that makes up his family, his mother particularly (Miranda Richardson)–which spells out such initial promise in the film. There’s nothing immediately extraordinary about Bauman and that’s what makes his story and his recovery so fascinating. While Peter Berg’s Patriot’s Day was consumed with the men in uniform during the week of manhunts and city wide shutdowns, projecting the characteristics of many real life heroes onto one fictional surrogate, Stronger is entirely engaged with the victim, his story and how he tried to recover from such a traumatic event. We don’t ever see the bombers and, in fact, the first time the explosions go off in the film we’re seeing them from Erin point of view, taking the viewpoint of the horrified bystander. There’s no exploitation of real pain.
All of which is to say that by the time the film flips the switch to your standard biopic it’s all the more disappointing considering how strong the film had been prior. Happy endings are all well and good but Green went for the safe route in tying everything together too neatly to feel like honest payoff from the hour or so worth of material we’d watched leading up to the finale. The first half of the film is messy, sometimes ugly, and tragically raw in how it depicts Bauman and his enabling family. His mother is written to showcase both her adoration for her son and the way she sees his recent spotlight for his trauma as a way to dig her nails in further. Bauman himself is written to be a frustrating character, one who so often is at fault for not looking around him and recognizing the support team he has on his side.
And that’s fine because it’s what makes the film interesting. They feel like people we know, as we should, since they’re based on real people. Everything from the locations to the styling to, especially, the set design gave it a sense of familiarity which added pathos to the overall affair. There are pictures in the Bauman house that decorate the walls of my grandparents’ apartment in Revere. The way the family argue and raise their voices to climb messily over the others, the way they arrive in a pack rather than alone and how every comment could instigate a fight, but every fight is quickly shrugged off with affection all adds up to something that breathes complexity and nuance into the characters.
It’s a shame then that the film suffers from the ill-advised tone reversal of the last thirty minutes and a wonky script that leans too heavily on making sure the audience realizes that they’re all just working class, ordinary guys that we should relate to. Adapted by Brett Witter, the script fails the performers when it becomes too heavy handed. This is highlighted in moments between Jeff and his friends and montage or flashback sequences that relay imagery to drive home a point that’s already been made.
Maslany is solid in her role, though it’s hard not to wish she’d been given more to do, especially since there are moments where it truly is as much her story as it is Jeff’s. Richardson is also wonderful, allowing just enough warmth to transpire through her performance so that we don’t end up looking at her as an antagonist of the story.
Gyllenhaal is, of course, tremendous in the leading role, committing fully to the lack of vanity and fully controlled physicality the character required. Increasingly becoming a chameleon of an actor, he plays Jeff which just enough aw-shucks charm, easy confidence pre-accident, and pent up despair and dark humor after to create a lively and intriguing performance onscreen. The film lives and breathes through his take and he doesn’t disappoint.
Green, however, does, sanding down the edgier aspects of the film for something tidy. Based on events that would shape the city and the lives within it, the film is suitably small in nature in its intimate look at one man’s tragedy and then following triumph. The biggest events in our lives, the ones that shape us, are simultaneously what we choose to hold close to our hearts, but also the ones that feel like the most definitive. When Stronger is at its best it understands that the personal can be also be universally profound.