2017 has seen plenty of cinematic zeitgeists, with three films about Dunkirk, two about Winston Churchill, two revivals of Ridley Scott-created universes, and many more, but none so strangely immediate and raw as the focus on the 2013 Boston Bombings. Peter Berg’s very good Patriots Day at the start of the year was a wide-focus look at the attacks themselves and the immediate aftermath, and now we have Stronger, a more personal film about one survivor’s recovery.
Based on the book by the survivor himself, Stronger zeroes in on Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), a Costco worker who became the human embodiment of ‘Boston Strong’ in the weeks following the marathon bombing. Standing at the finish line to cheer on his girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany, who is excellent), Jeff was right by one of the bombs, and its detonation took both of his legs off. We follow his recovery from the moment he’s taken into the hospital, and though the detail is never gratuitously gruesome, the frankly displayed medical procedures will have you wincing.
Where director David Gordon Green and writer John Pollono draw a lot of their power from is in their refusal to make their film a total hagiography of Bauman, as one might expect. With Bauman’s personal involvement and sharp and incisively funny writing, they instead create a far more flawed central character, and he’s much more compelling for it. Still living with his alcoholic mum Patty (Miranda Richardson), Jeff is lazy and often inconsiderate, not to mention overly fond of getting blackout drunk. These longstanding problems persist after the attack, even when Erin moves in with him in an attempt to help him get his life back together.
None of this is to say that Jeff is a bad person (he’s got at least as many charms as he does faults), just that very good work is done to make him a three-dimensional person rather than the ‘sometimes frustrating hero’ cipher that biopic subjects are so often reduced to. It makes his struggles more moving and his triumphs more jubilant, and in being frustrated both with him and for him, Stronger envelopes the audience in its story as if they were a member of Jeff’s circle.
All of this is anchored by a top form Jake Gyllenhaal, making a serious play for the Oscar nomination that should have been his for Nightcrawler. Wide-eyed and energetic, it’s a performance that largely avoids histrionics until they are absolutely necessary, then lands them with sledgehammer force. Close ups let us in to Jeff’s head, Gyllenhaal always keeping a crystal clear distinction between his being strong and his actually feeling strong. When it’s the former, we feel his tired discomfort with him, and the latter is incredibly uplifting.
A standout scene in which we can view the transition between this public-friendly façade and genuine happiness to be alive is that in which Jeff meets the man who carried him to safety after the blast. As his saviour Carlos (Carlos Sanz) delivers a monologue about the importance of carrying on, day after day, Gyllenhaal moves from reluctant and reserved to appreciative to truly moved. It’s a speech that finally pushes him to make things right with Erin, who he has been taking for granted for much of the film, and while that may seem contrived or trite on paper, on screen it works like a charm.
The conversation is framed simply, with minimal directorial trickery, as are most of the emotional breakthroughs and Jeff’s physical therapy regime. Gordon Green saves the showier stuff for explorations of Jeff’s PTSD, which rips him out of his environment and right back to the bombing, and a superbly effective rendering of drunkenness. Aggressive close ups with a sickly haze and slight swirling really capture the sensation of having had one too many, and when he exits the sweaty bar into the night, the cold, refreshing air is just as bracing as if you were really there.
A few scenes don’t really ring true, most notably an encounter with some aggressive conspiracy theorists that comes out of nowhere, but these are all offset by Stronger’s moments of brilliance. Jeff’s forced recalibration of his own masculinity and his restraint when dealing with ‘fans’ who can’t see how intrusive their requests are just two of many little details this film gets right. Less of an outright love letter to Boston than Patriots Day, Stronger picks a far smaller story to tell, and does so with affecting nuance and skill.