Stronger (2017)

Content by Tony Macklin. Originally published on September 19, 2017 @

Stronger brings humanity back to the screen.

It's a welcome return.

Stronger is a film that has scenes that may bring a tear to your eye. At its best, it is emotional and genuine. It transcends its lapses and contrivances.

Stronger is the story of Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is a survivor of the bombing in 2013 of the Boston Marathon. He loses his legs, because of one of the two explosions.

Jeff reluctantly becomes a symbol of Boston's strength and American fortitude. It is not an identity without severe psychological consequences. The film emphasizes Jeff's struggles with the pressures of outside expectations and inner turmoil.

Director David Gordon Green brings an actual experience to life. His direction is partly subtle and partly blatant. His lighter touch is preferable to his heavier one. The initial time the explosions are shown, it is done with subtlety. It is not explicit. That introduces a tone that allows us to concentrate on the human dimension.

Later Green shows a more explicit version, but the original sequence allows us more human access.

The film does decline into too many scenes of a dysfunctional family and Jeff's loudmouth, alcoholic mother (Miranda Richardson). And there are the expected basics of behavior - Jeff's alcoholism and self-pity. It's unlikely that any such film could avoid these staples.

The screenplay by John Pollone - based on a book by Bauman and Bret Witter - does include a scene that mirrors the world we know today. In a bar, Jeff is accosted by another man at the bar who accuses Jeff of being part of a government conspiracy because Obama wants a war. That's the only negative moment Jeff faces from the public. But its a telling moment, especially given the future.

What most gives the film its potency and authenticity are the sensitive, affecting performances of Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Maslany as Erin, his independent but loyal girlfriend. Their characters are smart and appealingly human. Their conversations are often clever and disarming. But what has been cut is how Erin was able to be the one who wheels Jeff in his wheelchair, when his family does not seem likely to give up control.

Miranda Richardson keeps the character of the mother from becoming a total caricature, though at time it lurches that way.

One of the best and most crucial scenes is when Jeff meets Carlos (Carlos Sanz), and they sit alone together at a table. Carlos was the man who had saved Jeff's life by binding his wounds immediately after the bombing. The conversation at the table is uplifting and credible. [But Carlos is almost too appropriate to be believed.]

The revelations by Carlos about the fates of his own sons brings Jeff to a moment of truth. That scene is the emotional climax of the film.

It's much more convincing than a tacked-on scene in which Jeff meets well-wishers at Fenway Park. That's a pat and conventional scene that dilutes the impact the communication with Carlos had. It's like the films about actual people where the ending is of an audience of people giving the protagonist an ovation. Save your ovations. They're just noise.

Overall, Stronger shows us that humanity is more powerful than patriotism or denial.

Like Jeff Bauman, Stronger prevails - with its humanity intact.

© 2000-2018 Tony Macklin