Last year’s Patriots Day, starring Mark Wahlberg, was as an action thriller reconstructing the tragic events of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, focusing on the authorities’ efforts to apprehend the perpetrators. Stronger, in spite of being a studio release, is a low-key drama that explores the story of Jeff Bauman, one of the victims who survived the terrorist attack but lost both legs in the aftermath.
Based on Bauman’s memoir, this cinematic adaptation powerfully conveys the man’s struggle and how it goes beyond his debilitating accident. Filmmaker David Gordon Green keeps things grounded, leaning towards the kind of minimalistic style that suits a character-driven piece based on a real life story. Despite some rhetoric-filled moments when the American patriotism kicks in, Stronger never feels like manipulative Oscar bait.
Jeff is an underachiever who works at Costco and shares an apartment with his alcoholic mother (an excellent Miranda Richardson). A kind soul with a big heart, he has a hard time wrapping his head around any sort of commitment or responsibility. That’s why Erin (Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany) has dumped him more than once but Jeff keeps trying to win her back. When he learns that she’s running the Boston Marathon, he promises he’ll be at the finish line to cheer her on. This time he does show up but has no clue that he’s standing right next to one of the two bombs that went off on that fateful day.
Jake Gyllenhaal continues to flex his acting muscles on challenging roles, demonstrating an immense range and a kind of artistic sensibility that’s rare among major Hollywood players. This time the Oscar nominee plays a character whose external wounds and scars are an amplification of the deeper ones he carries within. His work feels seamlessly authentic not just because he faithfully embodies Bauman’s physical challenges.
The actor is especially great at capturing the man’s psycho-emotional struggle coping with the pressure that family and society put on Bauman when the man becomes the key witness to help the FBI catch the terrorists.
The only person who sees Jeff’s true pain is Erin. She’s gotten back into his life, feeling responsible for the horrific accident but she genuinely cares for him and tries her best to be there. When Jeff suffers an extreme episode of PTSD after waving the US flag at the opening ceremony of the Stanley Cup, Erin confronts his mother, suggesting that these public appearances are only doing him harm. Tatiana Maslany does an excellent job at portraying this strong young woman who knows what she wants and needs but keeps falling for Jeff’s kind heart. The actors’ chemistry is always on point and they deliver the goods in the most dramatic moments as well as during the lighter ones.
The film’s greatest merit is to always stay true to how Jeff is far from the hero that his family and the whole country want him to be. He’s just a flawed human being like everybody else and the troubles he was experiencing before the accident are the same now that he’s lost his legs. Jeff in fact falls back into unhealthy habits, begins to miss physiotherapy sessions and compromises his newly found relationship with Erin.
Director David Gordon Green proves to be a rather eclectic filmmaker who is confidently able to jump from lighter fare (Pineapple Express) to this kind of emotionally complex storytelling, showing a great deal of sensibility and nuanced skills at handling such delicate material. Stronger could’ve easily turned into another manipulative sap-fest aimed for awards season but the filmmakers have done a remarkable job at creating an intimate and moving character’s study and a heartfelt portrayal of what makes us human.
Stronger is in UK cinemas now
Words by Francesco Cerniglia @FrankieWriter