Caught up in the devastation of the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013, a young man struggles to physically and emotionally recover from his ordeal while becoming an unsuspecting symbol of hope and defiance for a city and a country, in this poignant drama based on a true story of resilience and the memoirs which recount it.
After the terrible events of September 11th 2001 when America was eternally scarred and the world was changed as a consequence, Hollywood has tried to deal with the events and the fallout of the so-called ‘war on terror’ through films like the forensic Paul Greengrass thriller ‘United 93’, Kathryn Bigelow’s gripping account of the hunt for Osama bin Laden‘Zero Dark Thirty’, and Peter Berg’s own 2017 take on the Boston marathon bombing and subsequent manhunt ‘Patriots Day’.
Now director David Gordon Green(Pineapple Express, Joe) tackles biographical drama for the first time and takes a different approach to dealing with the human tragedy of terrorism, focusing the drama on the very personal and real experiences of young everyman New Englander Jeff Bauman—in this often frank and uncomfortable but uplifting story of pain and resilience, showcasing the type of strength and bravery of everyday people which proves the ultimate response to the tyranny of terrorism.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars as young Massachusetts supermarket worker Jeff Bauman, determined to get his life on track and win back his estranged girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany), only to get caught up in tragedy while waiting at the finish line of the 2013 Boston marathon. Now a double leg amputee with deep physical and emotional scars, Bauman toils with the life-changing consequences of his experiences while struggling with his newfound position as media personality and symbol of hope and defiance for the people of Boston—relying on family and his irrepressible mother Patty (Miranda Richardson), plus some working-class Boston grit, to climb out of a well of despair and self-pity and discover the inner strength to live life after death and destruction.
Whereas other films which deal with terrorism and its effect on the American people tend to focus on the minutia of the events, often with thrilling forensic precision, ‘Stronger’ focuses on the victims and the human cost of mindless extremism—through the prism of one story and a young man who could be any of us. This is very much a classic American tale of the struggle against adversity in the face of tragedy, with a clear message of defiance at its heart, but it’s also a noble attempt at painting a portrait of life after tragedy—centred on a man not only facing a long and painful physical struggle from life-changing injuries, but also an existential struggle which comes with becoming an unwitting heroic national symbol . . . and the guilt-ridden self-reflection that comes with it.
Once again Gyllenhaal proves why he’s one of the finest screen stars working today and arguably the best American actor of his generation, leaving aside a formidable track record of playing eccentric and emotionally damaged characters for a nuanced and poignant turn as a very real soul—dealing with recent psychological scarring and trying to make sense of a small world around him which suddenly becomes very big, scary and complicated. He’s ably supported by solid performances which include Maslany as Bauman’s devoted but conflicted partner, as well as Brit Miranda Richardson in an utterly convincing turn as a brash but well-meaning New England matriarch.
Indeed far from the tone of film being entirely sombre and melancholy, Bauman’s family and friends occasionally introduce some much needed but honest moments of levity, treating the audience to the boisterous ball-busting, working-class New England humour that we’ve become familiar with through films like ‘Good Will Hunting’ and ‘The Departed’.
While ‘Stronger’ may not be the most the most memorable or engrossing biographical drama in recent memory, and despite it flirting with becoming a patriotic American rallying cry with the ‘Boston Strong’ slogan at its centre, director David Gordon Green manages to strike a balance between anger and acceptance, poignancy and determination, by focusing on the very human element of a national tragedy—delivering a message of resilience and hope without shying away from the individual pain and despair that it takes to get there.
The Bottom Line…
A frank personal portrait of strength and resilience in the face of tragedy and despair, David Gordon Green leans on the considerable and nuanced talents of his star to craft a warts-and-all biographical account of the aftermath of terrorism, through the prism of everyday Americans and how they deal with it—and through the eyes of one reluctant symbol of hope and defiance.
‘Stronger’ is out on the 8th of December in the UK, and out now in the US.