STRONGER – Review
“Boston Strong” is the phrase that came out of the remarkable, resilient response of the people of Boston after the terrorist bombings at the 2013 Boston Marathon. “Boston Strong” spirit sparked admiration across the country, making the whole city seem heroic. STRONGER is a true-story drama about one of the survivors of that attack, Jeff Bauman. Bauman lost both legs above the knees to the bomb but he not only survived, he helped identify one of the bombers.
Jake Gyllenhaal gives a valiant performance by as Bauman, but director David Gordon Green gives the audience a different kind of story than they might be expecting. Green’s previous films include SNOW ANGELS (2007) and ALL THE REAL GIRLS (2003), and the director seems determined to fit this true story about a historic event into that dramatic mold.
The film is adapted from Bauman’s memoir by screenwriter John Pollono, and takes a hard, even harsh look at Bauman’s injury and recovery. As the film opens, Jeff Bauman (Gyllenhaal) is a kind of lovable screw-up who works as a chicken-roaster at Costco but whose real life centers on the local bar, where he drinks, fights and cheers on the Red Sox with his pals. Jeff has broken up yet again with his girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany) but this time she says she is done for good. When he spots her in the bar, collecting donations to sponsor her run in the Boston Marathon, Jeff makes a big show about collecting money and boasts about how he is bringing a big sign to cheer her on at the finish line. Erin is not in impressed, she has seen this before, and doubts the hard-drinking, unreliable Jeff will even show up on race day. Of course, he does show up this time. Standing near the finish line with his sign, he loses both legs in the explosion, spotting one of the bombers shortly before it goes off.
Green walks us through Bauman’s injury and later recovery in frank, unblinking fashion. Surviving the bombing and helping the police earns Bauman praise as a hero and national media attention. Bauman is glad to accept thanks from the police but then wants to move on dealing with his own problems, expecting in some way to get back to his anonymous life. He is puzzled by strangers who want to shake his hand, and by being called a hero. He just wants to focus on figuring out how to walk again. Gyllenhaal is excellent in the role, realistically capturing the trauma Bauman is working through, his moments of determination and of despair. Maslany as Erin is just as good, as the only grown up in the room, in comparison to Bauman’s dysfunctional family.
Right after the bombing, Bauman’s loud, argumentative family descends on the hospital, ready to fight with the doctors over his care. It seems like a caring impulse but the family seems as much a problem as anything. It is common to see working-class Bostonian like these folks portrayed in a stereotypical way, but Green goes way beyond that, with Bauman’s family depicted as angry, hard-drinking, foul-mouthed brawlers on a cartoonish scale. Miranda Richardson gives a bizarre, over-the-top performance as Bauman’s mother, a self-absorbed loud-mouth who both wants to protectively surround her son and fails to get him to physical therapy appointments because she is hung over. Surviving the bombing and helping the police earns Bauman praise as a hero and national media attention. Bauman is glad to accept thanks from the police but then wants to move on dealing with his own problems, expecting in some way to get back to his anonymous life. His mother wants him to be on Oprah.
Green depicts Bauman and his struggle to recover in harsh, even stark terms. When a stranger tells Bauman he is a hero and a symbol of the “terrorists not winning,” he quietly mentions that they scored some points, meaning the lost of his legs. When Bauman tries to walk on his prosthetic legs for the first time, Gyllenhaal’s face is pale and filled with pain, while his oblivious family cheer him on with platitudes. The only one who seems to acknowledge his pain is Erin, yet when she discovers she is pregnant, his reaction is appalling if believable for the character,one of several tough to watch scenes. Yet, at a certain point the film shifts its tone to a more conventional inspirational tone, as it stumbles to its conclusion.
Despite fine performances from Gyllenhaal and Maslany, STRONGER never really grabs the audience emotionally, and later in the film, falls into a hurried, perfunctory redemption arc and its happy ending. It almost feels like two films. The strong lead performances may carry the film with some audiences, but others may find its harsh. blunt approach make it a difficult film to embrace.
RATING: 2 1/2 out of 5 stars