Every now and again, a film is made that achieves the ultimate goal of cinema: evoking emotional, mental and physical responses. It weaves a powerful story, rewrites the rules of life and allows us to live in someone elses shoes or perhaps even in their world. Septembers film Stronger achieves these goals.
Stronger explores the true-to-life story of Jeff Bauman, a man who lost his legs in one of the explosions at the 2013 Boston Marathon. This movie explores the account of a man whom we otherwise may have never known if not for this passion project, directed by David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express, Our Brand is Crisis).
Bauman, portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko, Nightcrawler), is an unassuming Costco employee living in Boston with his mother. Recently jilted by a break-up with his on-again/off-again girlfriend Erin, portrayed by Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black), Bauman fawns almost single-mindedly over the idea of winning back his lost love. In a bid to win her affection, he waits for her at the finish line of the marathon she is scheduled to participate in a decision that will change his life forever.
From this point on, as a double amputee who has landed in the spotlight, Bauman transforms from a naive Boston twenty-something to a reluctant global hero. Thrown into a world that is no longer familiar to him, we experience life without legs as Bauman does. From taking a shower lying down, to stumbling off the toilet seat reaching for toilet paper, we are reminded that even the most mundane moments in life are taken for granted.
The films highest points come from its two lead actors. Gyllenhaal displays a fragile finesse to this eclectic character, shifting from optimistic humor to throat-shredding agony with fluid genuineness. Maslany is, in equal part, responsible for the gritty telling of Baumans story, playing off of Gyllenhaal and, oftentimes, giving him a run for his money in their bespoken crafts. From their layered portrayals to their messy hair, one may easily forget they are watching performances.
Along with Gyllenhaal and Maslany, Miranda Richardson (Sleepy Hollow, The Phantom of the Opera) shines as Baumans mother Patty. She portrays her as though she stepped out of a Tennessee Williams play: a Bostonian belle whose best days have been swallowed with a stiff drink. Her relationship with Bauman supplies both hope and anxiety, splashing some unpredictable colors in an otherwise straightforward chronicle.
Apart from the masterful acting, the films plotline does its best to document Baumans path with downplayed emotion. This style of storytelling is reminiscent of films such as Manchester by the Sea, wherein cataclysmic situations are traversed through with humor and apathy in a blink-and-youll-miss-it emotional rollercoaster.
Despite this, the film occasionally falls into the trappings of Oscar-bait. The films subtlety is sometimes replaced by a more in-your-face reaping of emotions. In its efforts to portray Bauman as a human being rather than the headline-crowned hero, it tends to play through emotional scenes as if they were tailor-made for the Oscar highlights reel.
While Stronger provides ample opportunity for Gyllenhaal and co. to shine, credit must be given for John Pollonos screenplay. Adapted from the book of the same name by Bret Witter and Bauman himself, Pollonos writing captures Baumans funny and tragic personality in relation to the world around him. This produces the life-like quality of the film that Greens directing thrives on.
Overall, Stronger is a worthy addition to the cinema shelves of any film buff. Its strong storytelling, powerful direction, natural writing and master-class acting recount one of the most horrifying tragedies in recent American memory. While perhaps stumbling in the way of the story on occasion, its context as an account of a reluctant hero inspiring hope for the masses warrants the price of admission.