Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: David Gordon Green
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Miranda Richardson, Clancy Brown, Lenny Clarke, Danny McCarthy, Patricia O’Neil, Carlos Sanz.
Peter Berg’s 2016 drama Patriots Day looked at the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, which killed three people and injured hundreds more, and the massive police manhunt for the terrorists that followed. Berg gave the material an almost documentary-like feel as he explored the stories of many of the people involved. There are probably a lot more unheard stories from that terrorist atrocity that have gone untold. Stronger tells of a more personal story of one of the survivors of the attack and is based on the honest memoir written by Jeff Bauman (played here by Jake Gyllenhaal) and Bret Witter, and his personality infuses the material. This is an intimate but also occasionally harrowing look at trauma and the lengthy healing process.
Bauman was one of the many onlookers at the finish line when the bombs were detonated. As a result, he lost both legs and had to learn to walk again with the support of his family and on-again off-again girlfriend Erin (Emmy award winner Tatiana Maslany, from tv series Orphan Black, etc). Having witnessed one of the terrorists from close-up he was instrumental in giving the FBI vital information that led to the capture of them. But Jeff and his struggle to regain his life become the public face of the tragedy, and also a symbol of hope and resilience that shaped the city in the aftermath.
The final twenty minutes or so are emotional stuff as Bauman throws out the first pitch for his beloved Red Sox, and then meets a number of similar blue collar Bostonites, and he learns of how his struggles have inspired them. The film follows Jeff’s relationship with his working-class family, his hard drinking, chain smoking and overly protective mother Patty (Miranda Richardson, from Churchill, etc) and Erin, who is supportive as she helps Jeff overcome his initial bitterness and clean up his act. Erin and Patty are both headstrong in their views of what is best for Jeff and this leads to numerous clashes.
Stronger is the first feature length screenplay been written by John Pollono (an actor who appeared in tv series like Mob City and This Is Us, etc). The director is David Gordon Green, whose resume includes goofy stoner comedies like Your Highness and Pineapple Express, and strong gritty dramas like Joe, but this is arguably his most mainstream film to date. But he doesn’t pull his punches with this depiction of a survivor trying to come to terms with the aftermath of tragedy and his own status as a hero, and he avoids unnecessary sentimentality. There is also a quite harrowing depiction of the immediate aftermath of the bomb blast. But much of the middle section of this “inspirational” film about overcoming adversity is pure cringe worthy melodrama ripped from a prestige soap opera and is also fairly formulaic stuff. And there is an overly saccharine piano-driven score from Michael Brooks.
The film has been nicely shot by Sean Bobbitt (the Oscar winning 12 Years A Slave, etc) who brings a gritty edge to the material and often shoots in extreme close-up.
Bauman is a deeply flawed character, who still lives at home with his mother and works a menial job at Costco. He’s not your average hero. Yet Gyllenhaal (who also produced the film via his fledgling production company) delivers a fantastic and committed performance here as he captures not only Jeff’s resilience but also his vulnerability, insecurities, self-pity and bitterness as he battles his PTSD. This nuanced, emotionally raw and quite physical performance further establishes his reputation as one of the best actors of his generation, but it’s also the sort of role that is often cynically seen as Oscar bait. Gyllenhaal brings plenty of charisma and charm to his performance. And there are some great digital effects that remove his lower legs. Maslany delivers a nuanced and emotionally charged performance as the frustrated and selfless Erin, and she carries the brunt of the emotional weight of the film. There is a great chemistry between the pair that shapes their shared scenes. Richardson does well as Jeff’s overbearing mother. The trio of central performances bring gravitas and emotional heft to the sometime formulaic material.
Some of the minor characters, such as doctors, are played by themselves, adding an authenticity to the early scenes.