Updated: Feb 5, 2020
Stronger is an uplifting, if somewhat routine, biopic helped tremendously by a strong performance from Jake Gyllenhaal and a few very powerful moments.
Gyllenhaal (a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee in 2006 for Brokeback Mountain) is Jeff Bauman, a Costco employee and massive Boston Red Sox fan who was standing at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon when two bombs went off. The explosions took both of his legs below the knee. The film is about both his mental and physical rehabilitation as well as his relationship with on-again off-again girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany, the star of BBC America’s excellent Orphan Black).
The film is just as much about Jeff and Erin's relationship as it is about his injury. Their relationship is crucial to his recovery and is made more poignant by the fact that he was only at the marathon in the hopes that watching her finish the race could lead to him winning her back. Maslany is filling the clichéd “supportive girlfriend” role, but it feels a little different here because Erin is her own person. She’s not just there to motivate Jeff by crying or yelling at him; their stories are linked, which makes his progress as important to her as it is to him. However, her story arc hinges on how she feels about Jeff, so she is still mainly used as support to his story.
Stronger (112 minutes minus the end credits) is based on a 2014 memoir of the same name by Bauman and Bret Witter. The main thing holding the film back is how much it feels like so many other biopics. There are so many elements here that feel very familiar. The structure is formulaic and the characters are common types (damaged hero, supportive girlfriend, overprotective parent). However, director David Gordon Green does an effective job of making this story about Jeff as a person and not just about what happened to him. His story is important, not because he was caught in an explosion, but because of how he used his circumstances to inspire others.
For instance, there is a scene towards the beginning of the film where doctors are changing the dressings on Jeff’s legs for the first time. He has requested that Erin stays with him while they do it, to comfort him. The way that Green and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt frame the shot, Jeff’s face is in close-up on one side of the screen and Erin’s is in close-up on the other. His legs are in the bottom middle of the shot. Their faces are in focus, but his legs are not. Even though we can kind of make out what is happening with his legs, our attention is turned to their faces. The scene is not about the injury; it is about Jeff’s pain and Erin’s care. That is far more powerful than if they had shown his bandages being removed.
Stronger is an intriguing story hampered by an unfortunately conventional screenplay by John Pollono. I did not really know Jeff Bauman’s story coming in, yet it was really easy for me to predict where the story was headed. We have all seen this basic film before. However, Jake Gyllenhaal does a terrific job making Jeff Bauman sympathetic. His arc is believable because Gyllenhaal presents him as a guy who has no interest in being inspirational. All he wants is for things to go back to the way they were before. The film never asks us to pity him. Yes, he was only at the Marathon because he wanted to impress Erin, but there are no “what ifs” here. This thing happened to him and now he has to live with it. This story is about how he learns to live with it.
Stronger is a great movie held back by an unoriginal screenplay. There are enough really good things here for a recommendation, including Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance which will certainly put him into consideration for an Oscar nomination. But his performance (and Jeff Bauman’ story) have been used on a film that takes absolutely no chances. This story deserved a film as brave as its hero.
3½ out of 5
Jake Gyllenhaal as Jeff Bauman
Tatiana Maslany as Erin Hurley
Miranda Richardson as Patty Bauman
Lenny Clarke as Uncle Bob
Clancy Brown as Big Jeff
Carlos Sanz as Carlos
Directed by David Gordon Green
Screenplay by John Pollono