Jake Gyllenhaal has done it again! The actor has received many fine notes of support for his work over the years, and recently, his work in Nightcrawler (2014) and for me personally Nocturnal Animals (2016) were both overlooked by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but maybe that will change with Stronger, a film that tells the true story of Jeff Bauman, an innocent bystander who became a national symbol of hope.
So Bauman is just your everyday guy working at Costco, and who has an on-again, off-again relationship with friend Erin, and happens to be with her in a bar during a Red Sox game where he promises to be there for her the next day at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon. Of course, as we all know, terrorism was in the cards that day as well, and Bauman suffers a double amputation below the knees due to the bomb blast. As he recovers, he rekindles his relationship with Erin and to a lesser degree his friends and family, but even when you’re the most celebrated hero in Boston during one of its darkest hours, you’re still a human being who can make mistakes and you’re not always going to be a saint.
Really the biggest strengths of the film are the acting, direction, and script. Of course Gyllenhaal delivers as Bauman, and it’s a tough role to play, especially since the real life Jeff Bauman reportedly wasn’t always interested in a movie being made about his life or the events in 2013, but he commands the screen with a character we like at first, then suffer the tragedies with, then strengthen with, ultimately to become angered and frustrated with, and at the end go back to loving again. It’s a stereotypical arc that happens in some biopics, but since it is so true to who Jeff is and it’s handled fairly well, it’s not a huge complaint I have. Fans of the show Orphan Black (2013-2017) are glad to see lead actress Tatiana Maslany take up an Oscar-bait role, and true I haven’t seen the show, so my not having seen her act in anything before this might impact my opinion, but I get now why everyone was saying she’s a talented gal. She very much delivers as well, and arguably gives a better performance than Gyllenhaal. Her character of Erin also goes through tough times, and as she points out in a big moment in the film, she and other characters have to change their lives to accompany and help Jeff get through the everyday tasks. Miranda Richardson, who I haven’t seen in a long time, is also great as Jeff’s mom, and without giving too much away, becomes an interesting character with actions and scenes we question and sometimes get angered by. The film is directed by David Gordon Green, whose work in the past has been all over the road from Pineapple Express (2008) to The Sitter (2011) to Our Brand is Crisis (2015), but he takes the job very seriously here and only puts in humor in necessary spots. There’s a brilliantly directed scene that’s done in one take that shows in close-up what happens to Jeff the moment after the bomb goes off that’s hard to sit through and despite my being desensitized to violence on screen, really made me uneasy. Scenes like this are hard to direct, and Gordon Green is more than up to the task. And the script by John Pollono sometimes does fall into the traps of biopics about heroic figures, but the dialogue he crafts feels lived-in and realistic, and some lines really do stick out.
As far as criticisms of the film, I alluded to a couple of them. Yes, the arc that Jeff goes through is a cliche of sorts, but it’s almost unavoidable without turning into The Theory of Everything (2014), where you arguably have to cheer for a character who leaves his wife, who has done nothing but help her ailing husband, for a hot nurse, but we won’t get sidetracked here. Again, the rise and fall and cliches of the biopic are present here, and they do distract at times. Also, Clancy Brown plays Jeff’s father, but he wasn’t in the movie that much. There’s a couple of scenes early on that hint he’ll be a part of Jeff’s life and help him, but it’s never addressed again and he’s rarely seen in the film past the thirty minute mark. Again, maybe they’re just trying to tell the story as it was, but if it was that way, I’d feel more drama from a father who pretty much lies about being there for his injured son.
So yeah, from all these you can gather that I really appreciated this film. I appreciated the way Gyllenhaal took the subject matter seriously and despite falling into some biographic traps, the performances, direction, and script really stand out and make for a movie that yes, does at times become hard to watch, but is also very much worth your time. Here’s hoping that Jake, Tatiana, David Gordon Green and screenwriter John Pollono especially get considered for their strong work.
My rating: 9/10.