“They’re trying to make a hero out of me.”
Hollywood biopics are predictable affairs. There are broad characterizations, rushed timelines, sweeping scores and overdramatic performances. They are emotional, message-driven and sentimental to a fault. They are designed to make audiences cry while their actors, directors, screenwriters, and producers win trophies. When you watch a lot of movies, it’s hard not to get nauseated by these cloying, cynical efforts. Like the changing seasons, they come like clockwork and they’re praised for ultimately being competent and calculated. They’re the kind of movies Hollywood is prone to make, waiting to receive easy affections. And it pains me that they often work on me more than they don’t. I hate that I’m such an affectionate guy.
Stronger is the second attempt from Hollywood to dramatize the tragic events of the Boston Bombing following last year’s generally ignored Patriot’s Day. Rather than look at the town-wide response to the crime, however, Stronger wisely chooses a more intimate, personal point-of-view, focusing its attention on Jeff Bauman, an innocent pedestrian that found himself caught in the crossfire. Portrayed by producer Jake Gyllenhaal, Jeff Bauman is seen as a hapless, generally aimless Costco worker in his late-20s, the kind of genial, happy-go-lucky man-child who still lives at home and who wouldn’t feel too out-of-place if squished next to Paul Rudd or Seth Rogen in Judd Apatow’s latest production. He has little prospects in life but a positive outlook, a disarming smile and a wicked sense of humor that makes him easy to like, if not always easy to love. Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany) learned that the hard way. His long-suffering on-and-off-again girlfriend, Erin is easily charmed by Jeff’s sweet-natured attitude, but she struggles to make him commit. He comes back, begging and pleading to get back together, yet Jeff has a hard time showing up. He hardly ever attends her events, and he’s generally too lazy to leave his house whenever she wants him to do anything at all. But this time is different, he promises. This time, he’s finally going to show up.
She’s running in the Boston Marathon, and true to his word (for once), he’s next to the finish line with a homemade sign. And when the bombs go off, his legs are completely obliterated. He stays true to his character at first, finding the humor in the horror by making comparisons to Lt. Dan from Forrest Gump, but the toll that comes from his current life situation — from his newfound disability to his unwelcomed local celebrity status — is one that soon weighs heavy on him. His family, a bunch of true-and-blue Bostonites, are not sentimental people, preferring to diverge conversations into sports tangents and shouting matches whenever anything serious is discussed. Erin, feeling terribly guilty for what happened, tries to be there for Jeff during this difficult period, but his inability to attend physical therapy seminars and do anything but get drunk and feel sorry for himself makes it difficult to want to be there.
It’s a compelling, heartbreaking true-life story — and one that’s generally presented with false dramatic beats and overblown speeches in these Oscar-friendly biopics. And, to be fair, those moments are periodically found throughout Stronger too, especially towards its uplifting ending. But what’s most impressive about Stronger is how it’s able to avoid such mawkish tendencies to focus on the humans at the center. Director David Gordon Green is a filmmaker with a resume as varied as they come, with everything from George Washington to Pineapple Express to Prince Avalanche to Your Highness to Snow Angels credited to his name. Stronger is decidedly more All the Real Girls than The Sitter, trying to find as many raw emotions as possible within this studio-funded weeper and avoiding every opportunity to make Bauman the hero the city wants him to be. Bauman, by his own admission, isn’t a hero. He was an average guy at the wrong place at the wrong time — even though, for once, he did the right thing. His journey is one that’s inspiring and gratifying, certainly, but Green works hard to not make the movie insincere. Even the inflamed shouting matches that populate the movie’s trailer feel honest in the film.
While Green deserves a great deal of credit for bringing this humanist angle, along with screenwriter John Pollono, Stronger is greatly benefited by its stirring, grounded performances. Gyllenhaal, once again, is incredible as Bauman, bringing forward another physically and emotionally challenging performance with equal parts levity and heaviness. There are few actors in Hollywood today that have the level of charisma, commitment and rousing conviction that Gyllenhaal brings on a regular basis. That’s no different here. He has already proven himself to be among the finest working actors of this generation, and Stronger only continues to solidify that. Though, of course, this is no Okja. Similarly, Maslany is as captivating as she is wounded, bringing that vulnerability and heart that’s crucial to every performance she has given us yet. Her on-screen relationship with Gyllenhaal is equally charming and heart-rending, providing the type of complexity and nicety that makes Stronger feel much more relatable and distinctive than your average biopic. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Miranda Richardson, playing Jeff’s drunken, absently caring mother Patty, giving a supporting performance worth remembering and celebrating come award season.
Stronger isn’t without its faults, but what makes Green’s latest film worth the investment is that it makes those flaws just as piercing as its successes. This is the kind of biopic I wish Hollywood made more often. One that’s filled with rich emotions that are believable, and one that knows how not to play it simply by-the-book. Stronger isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s better than your average biopic, and that’s worth praising. As the saying goes, whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. Stronger is a resilient, impactful triumph.