Directed by: David Gordon Green
Premise: Based on true events. Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) loses his legs in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Bauman struggles to recover physically and psychologically while also coping with the demands of the public.
What Works: Stronger is a biographical picture about a man adjusting to life after a traumatic injury. That’s not an unfamiliar concept but the filmmakers do it extremely well and they add some self-awareness to the movie that makes it a smart piece of work. On its most basic level, Stronger is simply the story of a man coming to terms with a traumatic injury and the film is unsparing in its portrayal of the visceral qualities of Jeff Bauman’s recovery. The early portions of Stronger take place in hospital rooms where Bauman’s treatment is shown in all of its discomfort. Later portions of the film take place in the home and in physical therapy sessions as Bauman adapts to life as a bilateral amputee and learns to walk with the assistance of mechanical legs. The movie doesn’t make Bauman into some kind of martyr or saint. He doesn’t immediately manifest a heroic will to conquer his condition. Instead, Bauman blows off his physical therapy appointments and spends a lot of his time drinking. This is a daring storytelling choice. It’s generally taken for granted that survivors are heroes; it’s almost a reflex to refer to those who survive events such as the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing as heroic. Stronger takes a closer look at that. As portrayed in the movie, Bauman didn’t feel that way about himself and he was warry of press attention. Stronger doesn’t take Bauman’s heroism for granted and in fact it questions that label by portraying him in a fair but unflattering light. But that also gives the movie an authenticity that’s missing from a lot of similar stories. The filmmakers ask us to think more deeply about what heroism means and how the act of survival itself can be heroic. Jeff Bauman is played by Jake Gyllenhaal and it is a terrific performance. The actor commits to the approach to this material and the picture offers a complex portrayal of a man’s suffering. Stronger also has a distinctly Bostonian feel; it captures the flavor of the town and its residents and what this tragic event meant for that community.
What Doesn’t: A lot of Stronger is about Bauman wallowing in his trauma and self-pity. It’s a bold portrait that’s at odds with the way we think about heroism. However, the filmmakers go the other way in the ending which is mostly uplifting. The story rushes through Bauman’s psychological transformation. The conclusion is mostly true to the facts but it feels dramatically forced and out of sync with much of what’s come before it. There is a sequence at a Red Sox game that’s intended to tie the movie together but it comes off sentimental in a way that’s not in keeping with the rest of the movie.
DVD extras: Featurette.
Bottom Line: Stronger is a dramatic but thoughtful movie with a terrific central performance by Jake Gyllenhaal. It may go a little soft in the ending but this is a well-made picture that leads us to think more deeply about what it is to be a hero.
Episode: #682 (January 21, 2018)