Earlier in the year, we had the release of Patriots Day. It aimed to be the definitive account of the Boston Marathon bombing and while I was nicer to it than others because it had serious power at times, it had some serious issues including the fact the city of Boston hated it and thought it to be massively offensive. So people continued to be on the lookout for the true Boston Marathon movie, one that wouldn’t insert a fake heroic character in real life stories. It seems though that we might have one with the release of Stronger. But is it good enough to make us forget about Patriots Day?
Jeff Baumann (Jake Gyllenhaal, Donnie Darko) was an ordinary Boston man until his legs were blown off in the Boston Marathon bombing. He soon becomes a hero after he helps the police to catch the bombers but away from the cameras, he is suffering from the extent of his injuries and how much his life has changed.
For some reason, when we discuss the best actors currently working in Hollywood we tend to forget about Jake Gyllenhaal. Perhaps it’s because some of his films have been quite poor, but even then he tends to be great. He was truly stunning in Nightcrawler and even though Southpaw is about as mediocre as you can get, he is really good at it. And once again, Gyllenhaal proves why we should be talking about him more in this movie. You get his character just from the way he stands in the first scene, obviously the child that got less attention than his brothers and someone who just isn’t that good at life. And then the performance gets better when he blows his legs off. He never says he doesn’t enjoy the limelight, but you can tell by the way he cowers anytime a fan approaches him. The script does give him a lot to work with, but he doesn’t need any dialogue to show you exactly who Jeff Baumann is.
Stronger is also a very powerful look at the loss of limbs. It is sometimes very tough to sit through, but for all the right reasons. There’s one scene which is expertly shot by director David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express) which is a perfect example. It’s when they first take the dressings off Jeff’s amputated legs. Gordon Green decides to shoot it with the amputated legs completely out of focus with the camera instead dwelling on Jeff’s face as he aims to get through the pain. It’s a scene you watch through your hands because it makes you feel the pain too by placing you in the same position as him, where you don’t want to look at the legs but you can’t help but do exactly that.
But Stronger doesn’t just look at physical pain, it also looks at the mental pain suffered when something like this happens. To put it simply, Jeff does not deal with the loss of his legs well. Despite being cared for by his on and off girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany, Orphan Black), he still slips into depression and ends up getting drunk most nights. It’s not helped by his environment which seems quite happy to ride on the coattails of the fame he suddenly has. That flat he has becomes a very destructive environment for Jeff and it’s when this is realised when this movie shows why it is such a good depiction of people coping with the loss of limbs.
And if I am going to talk about how brilliant Jake Gyllenhaal and his journey is, I really do have to talk about Tatiana Maslany. TV fans will know her already from Orphan Black, but this is my first introduction to her. And wow what an actress she is. As said above, she’s the on and off girlfriend who ends up becoming Jeff’s carer. A lot of this is down to the guilt she has for Jeff’s injury, it was because he wanted to watch her finish the Boston Marathon he was caught up in the blast. And what’s excellent about her performance is that you see the weight on her shoulders. You see her trying to stop Jeff’s descent but be helpless as his family doesn’t really notice what’s going on before she loses it in a scene that will be played at the Oscars should she be nominated for them. It’s a brilliant performance and one that should see Maslany get many more jobs.
The thing that drags Stronger down is Jeff’s family. They are very unlikable the movie never really addresses it. Apart from a short scene here and there, it’s never really explored that Jeff’s family were really harmful in the way they reacted to the injury. It starts when Jeff’s dad Jeff Sr (Clancy Brown, The Shawshank Redemption) pretty much accosts his CostCo manager when he comes to tell them that they are paying his hospital bills. They are characters you just don’t want to see and it’s a shame the movie never really tackles how bad they are for Jeff, just brushing it under the carpet because I imagine they were better in real life. Yeah, this is a real-life story, and I have to guess the family were better there because this movie makes them out to be the biggest idiots on the planet.
Stronger is definitely the better Boston Marathon bombing movie. That’s because it focuses on one very intimate story and shows that the effects of that tragic event did not end when the terrorists were killed. It has two incredibly strong performances from Jake Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Maslany, one confirming that he’s one of the best in Hollywood and the other showing us who will soon become one of the best in Hollywood. Yeah, the family are tough to watch in the wrong way, but this is still a very powerful movie that should be watched.