FILM REVIEW – STRONGER. With Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Miranda Richardson, Clancy Brown, Lenny Clarke. Screenplay by John Pollono. Directed by David Gordon Green. Rated R for language throughout, some graphic injury images and brief sexuality/nudity. 116 minutes
“Boston Strong? What the fuck does that even mean?” asks Jeff Bauman on his way home from the hospital, baffled by the slogan that became a merchandising bonanza during the weeks following April 15th, 2013. STRONGER, an admirably tough-minded picture adapted from Bauman’s memoir by screenwriter John Pollono and director David Gordon Green, is about a young man grappling with the media-fueled transformation of his unique circumstance into a universal symbol. It’s a movie interrogating the neat little narratives we need to tell ourselves in order to help wrap our heads around unfathomable tragedies, even if while doing so it kinda can’t help becoming one of those stories itself.
As local folks undoubtedly remember, Bauman was on the finish line at the marathon and caught a glimpse of one of the bombers before losing both legs above the knee. It was Jeff we saw in that unforgettable photo, blood-spattered and being pushed to safety by Carlos Arredondo–the mysterious Man in the Cowboy Hat. Through several surgeries and a painful, lengthy rehabilitation, Bauman became an emblem of the city’s perseverance, on the ice at the Garden waving a Bruins flag and throwing out the first pitch at Fenway. Bauman was our hero, the epitome of Boston Strong.
“What’s so heroic about standing there getting my fuckin’ legs blown off?” asks Bauman in the movie. Played by Jake Gyllenhaal as an affable, hard-drinking party guy who wakes up in a nightmare, Jeff can’t really comprehend his newfound fame but nevertheless keeps putting on a brave face for the benefit of others. (He’s what fellas in the neighborhood call “a good kid,” which is less distracting than it probably should be considering the pushing-forty Gyllenhaal is at least ten years too old for the role.) The visual motif used most often by director Green and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt keeps Bauman in sharp focus, crammed in a foreground corner of the frame while the rest of a blurry world goes about its business behind him.
The only one allowed to share Jeff’s isolation in such shots is Erin, his on-again, off-again girlfriend played by Tatiana Maslany (“Orphan Black”). They’d broken up again before he showed up at the finish line to try and win her back, and the bombing is depicted with chilling understatement from Erin’s point of view while she’s running the race. The relationship becomes a complex tangle of tenderness, guilt, and resentment, with Maslany using a haunted stillness to elevate a script that sometimes borders on the schematic. She allows us to see an inner world that isn’t always on the page.
Director David Gordon Green confounded fans of his early, lyrical coming-of-age indies “George Washington” and “All the Real Girls” by veering into raunchy studio stoner comedies like “Pineapple Express” and “Your Highness.” He’s a restless talent, difficult to pin down but possessing a strong capability for capturing privileged moments between his actors and telling stories in visual terms. (I was amused during an early scene to spot a DVD of Green’s downbeat 2007 melodrama “Snow Angels” on one of the Bauman family’s shelves. Didn’t peg them as fans.) He keeps the movie on a muted, even keel throughout, eliciting Gyllenhaal’s least histrionic performance in years.
It’s a tricky tale to pull off, the largely internal journey of a young man reconciling his private pain with the requirements of a public persona. Bauman might not feel like the hero the city wants him to be, but eventually he learns how to be comfortable with allowing people to project what they need to onto him. The film’s highlight is Jeff’s long-delayed meeting with Arredondo, artfully framed to keep the audience at arm’s length — reminding us that we cannot imagine what these men have been through, and shouldn’t be presumptuous enough to try.
At its best, the film recalls late-period Eastwood pictures like “Flags of Our Fathers” and “American Sniper,” in its plumbing of the gulf between the truth and what people need to hear. While last year’s despicable act of movie star auto-fellatio “Patriots Day” invented a phony hero to save the day, “Stronger” reminds us that tragedy and survival are a lot more complicated than a bumper-sticker slogan.
And if the closing crawl neglects to mention that Jeff and Erin are currently divorcing, well, remember the whole point of the film is that we don’t like our inspirational stories to get too messy.•••
Over the past eighteen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, The House Next Door, Time Out New York, EntertainmentTell, Philadelphia City Paper and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.