Powerful performances, restrained direction and a deft script makes Stronger an awards bait drama that has something to say about celebrity, trauma and willpower.
Written By: Nigel Asipa
Neither Peter Berg or David Gordon Green are from Boston, but the horrific 2013 Boston Marathon bombing touched a nerve deep enough to compel them to portray the story of a city.
Patriots Day is fashioned as a blockbuster that explores the willpower and communion of a city that seeks to resonate with audiences that tributes Boston as a symbol of resilience and love. The matters portrayed were visceral and frantic without ever leaning towards exploitation.
Stronger on the other hand has more indie sensibilities that fleshes out its characters as three dimensional people, emphasis on the word ‘people’. Both films do a great job in accessing the ordinary, everyman essence of its subjects. Green felt that Jeff Bauman’s story deserved better than the usual inspirational story tropes we’re used to seeing.
Perhaps he didn’t really have that in mind, using the idea that no matter what you’re going through, there is always someone out there that is having a more tough time than you are. Regardless it’s a refreshing take on a person and his people that try their best to will each other to recovery while contending with the everyone else’s fascination with them.
We see Jeff Bauman (acted by an uber commited Jake Gyllenhal) whose frenzied hair, wide eyed look and hard headed attitude almost makes him seem a basket case. He pries his way out of his CostCo. job, desperate to catch the Red Socs game. Whilst there, his ex girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany) shows up, donations jar in hand to find supporters for her marathon run in aid of the hospital she works at.
Jeff swings by to help her with the donations, promising that he’ll be waiting for her at the finish line to applaud her in open arms. fast track to the day of the marathon, 27,000 runners in attendance. It’s not long before everyone there gets the shock of their lives and a bomb explodes. Something no one was prepared, not even Jeff, who in the process loses both his legs forever. From the knees down, the surgeons had to amputate.
Devastation spreads throughout the city. His parents Big Jeff and Patty (Clancy Brown and Miranda Richardson respectively) arrive with much worry and are already concerned for his employment. His boss arrives to not fire him but to drop off his insurance information.
Once Jeff wakes up, the first thing he asks is if Erin’s OK. She is, mostly. What’s more Jeff managed to spot one of the bombers before the madness happened. When she sees him, she’s still with both relief and guilt. From here on in, they’re even closer than ever. More than anything Jeff needs the support and trust from everyone around him, but he soon realises just how overwhelming that support can weigh a person down. Even the words ‘Are you OK?’ can get tiring really quick.
From a script by John Pollono, based off the book of the same name by Jeff Bauman and Brett Witter, Stronger aims to authenticate its characters by turning them into compassionate but sometimes difficult people. Not once did I dissappointingly expect something to happen. The dialogue is nicely subdued by Green stays his camera on Jeff for us to feel what he feels. The craftmanship never calls attention to itself.
The acting is doing much of the heavy lifting and everyone on board is superb at ensuring the honesty and sensitivity of the characters’ dilemma are remembered by the audience. Gyllenhal does perhaps career best work as Bauman. With roles like Nightcrawler, Southpaw and Brokeback Mountain, he’s one of the most committed and versatile actors of his generation, rivalling that even of Christian Bale, it’s brilliant work.
Tatiana Maslany (who’s best known for her dynamic role in Orphan Black) carries the role with grace, dignifying her character in a way that has her Erin call out everyone (including Jeff) by not conforming to what the world wants for Jeff. Miranda Richardson has a plum role as Jeff’s mother Paddy. Her role is rich with tenderness and fierce love that’s both heartwarming and heartbreaking. All three of these actors deserve Oscar consideration.
The whole thing really feels like a journey, as Mark Kermode puts it “It felt honest. it never felt exploitative. it’s dealing with a genre of film often falls into formulae. it has a really decent heart”. Bauman never asked to be a hero, most don’t. He feels less capable, he’s tough on Erin too. His relationships are strained and tested, he’ll only allow a certain amount of pity and comes to terms with he’s lost parts of himself when he lost his legs.
Green doesn’t shy away from the injury detail either. one scene in particular has Jeff undergo having the dressing changed while Erin is by his side helping him to push through the pain. Moments throughout where there are moments that are moving, Green avoids making them too crowd pleasing and trusts his actors to tap into the complex psyche of these people.
While Patriots Days’ pacing offers more rewatchability (sometimes it has moments that border on realism), Stronger’s understated, intimate portrait of its subject shines as an example of how such an epidemic alters everyone’s lives as well as reminding audiences of how there are worse things to lose than your limbs.