REVIEW: Stronger (2017)

US Theatrical Release Poster – Lionsgate & Roadside Attractions

The following is a review of Stronger — Directed by David Gordon Green.

When Peter Berg’s Patriots Day was released in 2016, a lot of people took issue with the kind of story it was — and some people even said it was too soon for that kind of film. But while Patriots Day, a dramatization of the events that dealt with the bombing head-on, was the subject of this type of controversy, backlash, what-have-you, David Gordon Green’s Stronger deals with that act of terrorism very differently.

Whereas Patriots Day was a story about the heroes that fought back — the response to the bombings — Stronger is much more personal and it is much smarter about dealing with a bombing that still feels so recent, so tough, so hard to talk about. This isn’t America’s story. This is Jeff and Erin’s story that just so happens to have been dealt a curve-ball by the bombings that would come to describe him.

David Gordon Green’s Stronger is a biographical drama based on a memoir co-written by Jeff Bauman. It tells the story of Jeff Bauman (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), who was waiting at the finish line for his on-again off-again girlfriend, Erin (played by Tatiana Maslany), when the Boston Marathon bombings happened. Jeff Bauman lost both of his legs, and, suddenly, he was at the center of media interest when he was able to identify one of the bombers.

Jake Gyllenhaal is one of my favorite actors out there, and I constantly think back to all of the awards he should’ve been nominated for or won. So, when Stronger, which was released back in September of 2017 in the United States, was not released theatrically in Denmark, I wasn’t sure whether or not I would be able to watch his performance anytime soon. In actuality, I had to wait until today, when Google Play made it available to buy.

And the immediate thought I had as the film came to an end was that it really was a shame that this film managed to fly under the radar for Oscar voters. Stronger was not chosen to be nominated for any awards at the 90th Academy Awards, but it really should have been.

Stronger features two excellent performances that are so genuine and so raw that the film rises above whatever issues one may have with it, which isn’t to say that I did not have issues with the film. But Jake Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Maslany are truly brilliant here. The performances they deliver here have not been given the awards recognition that they deserve.

In fact, were it not for the fact that Gyllenhaal is a world class actor himself, Maslany — who is mostly known for her work in television — would’ve stolen this movie right away from him. You see, while it is, perhaps, a supporting performance, for a good chunk of time this really is Maslany’s movie, and she pulls it off very well.

They share multiple scenes, obviously, but there is one outstanding scene that is pretty hard to forget, in which, while doctors and nurses are working on his legs in the background, we see Maslany and Gyllenhaal’s faces in the foreground. The scene is perfectly designed as a two shot, and it works quite well.

While this is a story about Bauman’s journey to recovery after the terrible bombings, it is, to a surprising but pleasing extent, also a tribute to Maslany’s character. She is his rock, as well as the only person who actually pushes him to get better.

But, again, Gyllenhaal is a world class actor, and he does a lot with a character which, due to the fact that this film gives a lot of importance to Maslany’s character, at certain points comes across as somewhat of a man-child who is more comfortable throwing in the towel than adapting to this new situation. Gyllenhaal also does a good job of joggling dark humor with raw emotion and struggle.

The film does have some issues with humor, though. Many of Jeff Bauman’s relatives and friends are portrayed as these very cliché Bostonians and their humor did not always work for me. There is actually one joke that really annoyed me, where Jeff has fallen out of bed and onto his face and his mother is led to believe that he is masturbating. That kind of joke belongs in a very different movie, in my opinion.

Another issue that I had with the film was that the middle section of the film does not work as well as the rest of the final product. Some of the story beats become repetitive, and the confrontations between the three characters that end up living under one roof aren’t terribly exciting.

There is also a point to making these supporting characters into annoying caricatures. The film is about Bauman’s return to something resembling normalcy, and one of the challenges of that is him being thrust into the spotlight. Bauman has no interest in the spotlight, but due to him being a witness and a survivor, he becomes the symbol of that catchy phrase ‘Boston Strong.’

In trying to live up to the Boston Strong-phrase, he essentially becomes nothing more than a passenger on the rollercoaster that is his new life — his life as a symbol of something greater than him. His celebrity status is eaten up by his family, which seems more concerned with him potentially meeting Oprah than him dealing with PTSD.

As such, Stronger becomes a film about symbolism, putting people on a pedestal, but more than anything about endurance, resilience, and perseverance. It is up, close, and personal, but not as focused on the physical rehabilitation as the poster might lead you to believe. This is about the internal struggle with intense rehabilitation brought about by a catastrophic and life-changing event. It isn’t by-the-numbers, it is raw, intimate, personal, and effective.

8.5 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen

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