‘Stronger’: Some Oscar-Worthy Acting

The true story of a Boston Marathon bombing survivor has its ups and downs.
‘Stronger’: Some Oscar-Worthy Acting
Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), in "Stronger." (Roadside Attractions)
Michael Clark

If “Stronger” and “Patriot’s Day” (both dealing with the 2013 Boston Marathon terrorist bombings) and the multitude of movies made in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, have taught us anything, it’s almost the same thing that the country learned after World War II and Vietnam. Americans like movies where Americans win and triumph over adversity or foreign invasions and would rather avoid films where they don’t.

This preference isn’t something exclusive to the United States. No one wants to be reminded of their failures or shortcomings, especially on a national or global level.

In a role custom-made for his unique brand of fiery intensity, Jake Gyllenhaal reached for the Oscar fences by playing Jeff Bauman, the Boston man supporting his ex-girlfriend Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany) as she ran the marathon.

Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany), in "Stronger." (Roadside Attractions)
Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany), in "Stronger." (Roadside Attractions)

Wounded Bystander

Positioned at the finish line with unbridled enthusiasm and a handmade sign in the hopes of winning Erin back, Jeff was cut down at the knees by one of the two bombs. He immediately became a victim, then a martyr, then a symbol of national unity, and later a hero. And, for better or worse, a man Erin felt she absolutely had to take back as her boyfriend.

That might seem to be a tad too brutal and concise distillation of events, at least depicted by this film, but those are the facts. Working at a Costco deli, Jeff is portrayed as a charming and gregarious, but often unreliable, not-so-young adult. He is perpetually late for work and other functions and still lives with his mother, Patty (Miranda Richardson), a divorced, often drunk, chain-smoking, and profane New England train-wreck stereotype.

The remainder of Jeff’s immediate and extended family project the same abrasive attitude and habits. Together, they possess the subtlety of an inebriated, out-of-tune German marching band. The standout of this group is Jeff’s Uncle Bob (Lenny Clarke), whose every utterance provides the movie with much welcomed comic relief.

Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal, C), in "Stronger." (Roadside Attractions)
Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal, C), in "Stronger." (Roadside Attractions)

If for only the reason that Erin returns to him, Jeff’s injuries yield some sort of positive outcome. His swarming and publicity-seeking relatives (Patty books him on “Oprah” without his consent) all but turn him into a victimized poster child, a role he neither wants nor is emotionally equipped to handle.

It doesn’t take long for Jeff’s generic “thumbs up” positivity to evaporate and to digress into a deep gelatinous vat of morose self-pity while seeking a series of “passes” from Erin.

From Art House to Mainstream

With a résumé that is rooted in thoughtful, Southern-based, art-house understatement (“George Washington,” “All the Real Girls,” “Undertow,” “Joe”), director David Gordon Green had only tried to go mainstream once before (the stoner comedy “Pineapple Express”) with mostly middling results. “Stronger” found Mr. Green going for fact-based uplift, and most of the time he hits the mark.

Scenes that less-confident filmmakers would heavily edit or eliminate altogether are left intact in order to prod the viewer into a quasi- if not full-blown state of unease. Mr. Green does so with no compunction, editing, fuzzy focus, or odd camera angles.

One passage, when Joe has the dressing changed for the first time on his legs, is particularly agonizing, and Mr. Gyllenhaal matches the director’s dedication with a visceral rendering.

Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), in "Stronger." (Roadside Attractions)
Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), in "Stronger." (Roadside Attractions)

It was quite surprising that Mr. Gyllenhaal and Ms. Richardson didn’t receive Oscar nominations for their work here. The Academy loves to notice, if not outright reward, performances of broken and fractured souls; however, the unlikely standout here is Ms. Maslany.

Restricted to playing a character who internalizes and remains largely emotionally neutral, Ms. Maslany’s performance is all the more impressive as she shares the screen with other actors figuratively pouring their guts out.

For a few nerve-wracking days, the Boston terror attack shook America, yet it eventually acted as a spiritual salve that showed the nation’s strength and ability to back a common cause.

“Stronger” shows what we didn’t see on TV and emphasizes just how hard it was for those directly involved in this atrocity to regroup and move on. Just surviving what Jeff went through would test the will of most humans. Calling on him to relive the experience through metaphoric jackal feedings by the media and two professional Boston sports teams was beyond the pale.

Thankfully, the end credits are preceded with postscripts showing the real-life versions of Jeff and Erin in moments after what took place when the film ended. I doubt anyone witnessing this section will not shed a happy tear or two.

Theatrical poster for "Stronger." (Roadside Attractions)
Theatrical poster for "Stronger." (Roadside Attractions)
The film is available on home video and to stream on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Apple TV+.
‘Stronger’ Director: David Gordon Green Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Miranda Richardson, Lenny Clarke Running Time: 1 hour, 59 minutes MPAA Rating: R Release Date: Sept. 22, 2017 Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5
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Originally from Washington, D.C., Michael Clark has provided film content to over 30 print and online media outlets. He co-founded the Atlanta Film Critics Circle in 2017 and is a weekly contributor to the Shannon Burke Show on FloridaManRadio.com. Since 1995, Mr. Clark has written over 4,000 movie reviews and film-related articles. He favors dark comedy, thrillers, and documentaries.
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