What does “Boston Strong” actually mean? Is it a motto? Is it a belief, or a reality? Or is it a well-intentioned myth built to inspire people in a time of fear, sort of like how “Camelot” was made up to inspire people in the face of Kennedy’s assassination? The phrase appears repeatedly throughout David Gordon Green’s Stronger, and while at first it might feel refreshing to hear the phrase that supposedly united a town, its repeated use starts to make it clear that the fantasy is something of a living hell for protagonist Jeff Bauman – a man who did not earn (at least in the way we’d expect) the hero’s response he received after the bombing, and by putting that pressure on him, made his recovery that much harder. Stronger is a film about the people we canonize, what affect that has on them as ordinary people, and what it means to eventually accept that mantle. And thanks to its eschewing of traditional biopic routes and three great performances at the helm, Stronger serves as a pleasant little kickoff to the adult-heavy fall film season.
From the start, it’s clear that Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) is no hero, but he’s certainly likable, in that “guy from the bar you pleasantly put up with” sort of way. He doesn’t really take his job at Costco seriously – the only time we see him working there, he screws up every job he comes across and leaves early to get drunk. He spends all his time in the bar with his obnoxiously realistic family. And he’s already screwed over his girlfriend, Erin (Tatiana Maslany) three separate times, resulting in breakups. He finally decides he wants to come through for her, and he shows up at the finish line at the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. As you all know, two bombs were detonated. Jeff lost both of his legs, but he became something of a hero when a photo of him being rescued was broadcast all over the news and he managed to give a description of one of the bombers when he woke up (it’s unclear if this description actually mattered in the long run, as shortly after he gave this description the Tsarnaev Brothers botched their own mission and got caught). He becomes something of a mascot for the town, a poster boy they can put up to represent “Boston Strong.” But at home, he’s still some poor, lazy schmo, who now has to work twice as hard at life, love, and happiness in order to get by. And so begins his struggle to regain his sanity, dignity, and ultimately, his soul.
I don’t have anything against the traditional biopic – they’re fairly pleasant, and can be a good way to pass the time. However, the one thing that’s always bugged me is the fact that they normally leave out the consequences, and especially don’t provide a “warts and all” look at things. Jimmy Stewart can do no wrong, but it’s kind of hard to watch his Charles Lindbergh movie without thinking, “So, at what point does he start talking about how Hitler had some good ideas.” People are good and bad, folks, and a good biography should reflect that aspect. While it never commits as much as I want it to, Stronger does attempt to do those very things in its casting off of the traditional biopic. As mentioned above, Jeff isn’t perfect. He’s a bad boyfriend, we meet him talking like your average douchebag at the bar (not a judgment, we all do it). And his sarcasm would be obnoxious if he wasn’t so damn charming. It’s believable to me that his first words at the hospital are “So I’m Lt. Dan now?” and joking about how people were “sitting on his legs” when he apparently walked up to Gyllenhaal the first day of filming, looked him dead in the eye and said, “I don’t have high hopes for this movie. I saw Prince of Persia.” He’s a funny, relatable guy, and it’s refreshing to see a movie portray him that way instead of trying to make him out to be some superhuman hero. In fact, the movie seems to be trying to criticize the fact people try to do that. Oh, don’t get me wrong, no one is angry that they think this guy who persevered and survived is incredible. It’s just that when you put all this pressure on an ordinary man, it’s going to break him. And that’s exactly what this movie wants to study – what happens when an average Joe has to be the hero. We watch as Jeff cracks under the pressure, as he makes bad choices, and as the PTSD of the bombing begins to affect his relationships with his friends, family, and loved ones. It’s even more affecting, both for the character and the audience, when you hear the story of the man who rescued him, Carlos (Carlos Sanz). Carlos is the one who should truly be considered the hero, and Jeff knows it (I’ll leave the details for the movie, because I don’t want to ruin the emotion with my bastardized retelling). Yet Jeff is the poster boy, and he has to carry that title. And yet, while he may not have done anything to earn that title other than be at the wrong place at the wrong time and manage to survive, this makes him more relatable to us, the viewer. He’s not some perfect specimen that stood up and succeeded. He’s us, and we can connect to him through that. And the fact that he manages to do that, and learn from his own mistakes allows him to transform himself into the hero that he wants himself, and we all want him (and ourselves), to be.
However, just because he manages to save himself in the end and provide us all hope doesn’t necessarily let off the situation that nearly broke him. One of my favorite things about this movie is the portrayal of Jeff’s family. Each one of them, from Uncle Bob (Lenny Clarke) to Aunt Jenn (Patty O’Neil) to Big D (Nate Richman), is wonderful, caring, flawed, and human. In many ways, they aren’t that different than the Greek Chorus of Sisters in The Fighter (a different, slightly better movie). However, they do have one thing that the sisters don’t – symbolism. The family here is symbolic for the city of Boston at large, especially in their treatment of Jeff. You see, Jeff’s family views him as this big-time celebrity, the living embodiment of “Boston Strong.” They’re often the ones shouting the catchphrase at Jeff every chance they get, without putting much thought or effort into helping him move forward with his new lot in life. It’s not that they’re bad people, or opportunists, or even uncaring of Jeff’s plight. It’s just that they’re a family/city who hasn’t really learned to deal with their emotions and would rather have a flag-waving (literally) symbol of their faith and strength than have to think about what this all means. It’s painful to watch his family act appalled when he turns down a chance to be interviewed by Oprah, just as it’s painful to watch random people around town try to take pictures with him like some tourist attraction. Yet we know it isn’t because they’re evil, it’s just that they’re human beings forgetting how to connect. Unfortunately, this forgetfulness pushes Jeff further into his own personal issues. It’s as he says to Erin around the midpoint of the film: “They can’t know [how I’m feeling]. They think I’m some hero.” It’s an honest, painful line that is spoken about his family’s struggles to understand, but it also speaks to the city as a whole. They can’t fathom facing the reality of what happened without a symbol, and they have pushed these insecurities onto Jeff. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but when you forget that he’s a human being going through the worst year of his life, it begins to become more than he can take. We can have our symbols, we just need to make sure we take better care of them along the way.
One of the best parts of the entire “warts and all” technique of this film is the honest way it looks at disabilities, across the board. Specifically, this is a film that wants to focus on how couples need to be honest and communicate to work their way through these types of traumas. One of the best sequences in the movie comes during the first dressing of Jeff’s wounds. The sequence is done in one take, with the camera positioned behind Gyllenhaal’s head as the doctors comfortingly talk him through the procedure, allowing him to look away if he can’t bear it (a fun fact is that this is the real staff of the hospital that treated Bauman, giving them their chance to shine). The unwrapping is done in the background, out of focus, so we don’t focus on the wound. We instead focus on the pain in Gyllenhaal’s face, physically from the injuries and mentally from the trauma of knowing he no longer has legs. And then we see a hand pop into frame, followed by a face – Erin has come to hold his hand through the procedure. It’s an honest, beautiful, touching moment, and is a triumph in subtle filmmaking on Green’s part. The film becomes a balance between the highs and lows of a relationship with a disable person. We watch Gyllenhaal hit his head – hard – almost every fifteen minutes. We see how difficult it his for Bauman to just go to the bathroom, falling off the toilet and eventually just sh*tting himself in the tub, which Erin must clean up, both to her misfortune and her anger, as it demonstrates the laziness she had forgotten. And yet, one of the best moments of the film comes during their reuniting, in terms of their relationship and in terms of sex. This is one of the better sex scenes to come out of Hollywood in recent memory, not only because it doesn’t really linger long enough to ogle either Maslany’s or Gyllenhaal’s bodies, but because it’s open and honest, and above all, reminds the viewer that Bauman is still human. He still wants, he still needs, he still feels. He may have lost his legs, but he still has a beating heart, working parts, and a desire to feel love. Honestly, it may be the most important sex scene since Coming Home in 1978.
Performance-wise, there’s really no question: this is one of Gyllenhaal’s all-time great performances. It stands up there with Nightcrawler, Zodiac, and Brokeback Mountain in its dedication and emotional honesty. His Bauman is heartbreaking, funny, smart, flawed, and realistic, and he embodies the man physically, mentally, and spiritually. Furthermore, Maslany is every bit as good, making herself so much more than the caretaker/doting wife that these roles often entail. Erin has hopes and dreams, wants and needs that Jeff just isn’t mature enough to provide, and the film really dives into what it’s like to be dating someone where everything is a struggle, but you feel like you can’t leave because of something horrible that happened in their life (and you feel like it’s your fault). It’s a three-dimensional take on a two-dimensional archetype, and kudos to Maslany for making it feel special. There’s also a wide variety of supporting characters who pop up to make an impact throughout the film. As mentioned before, I enjoy most of the behavior and shenanigans of the family. Carlos Sanz is really a knockout in his two scenes in the movie. Danny McCarthy plays Jeff’s boss, Kevin, who is so wonderfully sympathetic and likable, be it a truly touching scene in the hospital when he visits Jeff to a scene at a pool party where he convinces the “straight men” that mojitos are a wonderful drink (they are). Speaking of mojitos, I was surprised to see Blue Mountain State’s Frankie Shaw show up as Erin’s sister, and was more shocked to discover that not only is she a good actress, but she looks a lot like Maslany. Solid casting in that department. However, if there’s an unsung hero to this film, it’s Miranda Richardson as Jeff’s mother. Patty Bauman is a force of nature in this film. She’s someone who makes every wrong decision in her quest to care for and nurture her son after his incident, but it never comes from a spiteful place, like a Mommie Dearest, or an apathetic place, like The Fighter. Her bad decisions always come from the heart, as she tries to do what’s best for her son, even if it ends up babying him and stilting his growth, both mentally before the attack and physically after. I absolutely adored the little touches she added to her performance, bringing Patty to life with vim and verve, in all the right ways. She should be getting every bit of praise her costars are, and I hope that people understand that despite being a pretty bad mom after the accident, she’s someone who still cares for her son.
Stronger is a powerful, moving film that shows what it’s like to have to do most of your growing after the most traumatic moment of your life. It’s a little too long, and I’m disappointed that the ending of the movie embraces clichés that sort of contradict the themes that came before. However, it’s still a great story about the consequences of canonizing people who aren’t ready, about discovering your own self-worth and strength in the face of adversity, and it features three killer performances from its main cast. It’s a warm, friendly drama that stands amongst the year’s best, and it’s definitely one worth seeing.