"Stronger" Is A Compelling Portrait Of An Unwitting Hero

Actor Jake Gyllenhaal has been at the pinnacle of his profession for a decade now, both blessed and burdened with the ability to handcraft his filmography. Having his name attached to films gets them made, and save for a few missteps, the actor has shown a preternatural talent for finding stirring, original projects to shepherd to the big screen. While David Gordon Green’s “Stronger” isn’t the most inventive work to come from Gyllenhaal’s extraordinary 2007 to 2017 run, it is an uncommonly confident, compelling biographical drama that mostly avoids schmaltz and hagiography.

It also immediately replaces Peter Berg’s “Patriots Day” as the preeminent cinematic document of the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing.

On the morning of April 15, 2013, Jeff Bauman (Gyllenhaal) was an underachieving Costco employee living with his alcoholic mother Patty (Miranda Richardson). Later that day he was a double amputee, having just escaped a terrorist attack with his life, and later that week, an unwitting national hero, having helped the FBI identify the two men responsible for killing three and injuring hundreds at the marathon’s finish line.

Emphasis on unwitting. The film masterfully depicts Jeff’s immediate and protracted trauma, his family understandably but misguidedly pushing him into the national spotlight. A hero’s welcome at a Boston Bruins game proves a small consolation for a man who’d been muddling through life before his legs were taken from him. Jeff’s on-again, off-again girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany) is left to carry him, figuratively and literally, through the traumatic hockey game appearance and beyond, evincing the picture’s greatest triumph: how it illustrates the beauty of companionship.

Gyllenhaal is reliably terrific in the role, clearly having worked with the real-life Bauman and prosthetic technicians to capture the recovery process. But it’s Maslany who brings out the color in Jeff’s story. Hers is one of the year’s most natural, believable screen performances, tapping into a selflessness that transcends the written word. Where the others in Jeff’s life attempt to commodify his heroism, Erin is merely present, providing her boyfriend with whatever he needs, be it an object he can’t reach or the fortitude to make it through an especially dark day.

That the film avoids inspirational clichés until its final ten minutes is a small miracle. The chameleonic abilities of director David Gordon Green (“Our Brand Is Crisis”) are well documented, and yet his unwavering hand still comes as surprise in its disarming objectivity. (Bauman’s skepticism of his now famous rescuer, Carlos Arredondo, is one of many surprisingly stark story threads.) Green understands deep down in his gut that Jeff Bauman is a real hero – courageous, needy, brave, selfish – and it rubs off on his cast, from Gyllenhaal and Maslany all the way to a small but touching performance from character actor Danny McCarthy as Jeff’s boss at Costco.

Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography is another huge asset to the film, coming through with several shots of the poetry-in-motion variety.

“Patriots Day” was an effective technical showcase, coolly mining a real-life tragedy for visceral thrills. “Stronger” is technically proficient in its own way and cuts through to the humanity so often revealed in the wake of tragedy. Only here, it’s unsanitized, the scars of Jeff Bauman and his family uncovered for the world to see. The film is yet another must-see for Gyllenhaal fans, but more essentially it’s an unflinching look at the ups and downs of unsolicited hero worship – no matter how deserving the hero.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: September 22, 2017
Studio: Lionsgate, Roadside Attractions
Director: David Gordon Green
Screenwriter: John Pollono
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Miranda Richardson, Clancy Brown
MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, some graphic injury images, and brief sexuality/nudity)