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REVIEW: “Stronger”

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What would life be like if you were thrust into the public eye as the unwilling symbol of hope after an American tragedy? The new film “Stronger” tackles that premise as a man becomes one of the victims of the horrid Boston Marathon bombings only to become the symbol of hope and strength for many. Based on a real-life victim’s story following the bombings, “Stronger” is profound, tasteful, and mature in its take on a much-publicized deadly event and juggles a powerful story of survival and love with an eye-opening peak into the aftermath of an attack that rocked the country to its core.

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“Stronger” is based on the real-life story of Boston Bombing survivor Jeff Bauman, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who is the real-life subject of one of the most iconic photos to comeout of the disaster after destructive damage was done to both his legs. Bauman lost both his legs in the ensuing surgery and the photo made him a household name and an unwilling symbol of survival from the attacks. As Bauman tries to cope with his new life without legs he also juggles a rekindled romance with on-and-off girlfriend Erin Hurley, played by Tatiana Maslany, who he was cheering for at the finish line during the explosion. He also endures struggles with alcoholism and his own laziness brought on by his alcoholic mother, played by Miranda Richardson, who essentially forces her son into the public eye with national appearances to talk about his story. As Bauman’s journey progresses he struggles with PTSD and adapting to a new pair of prosthetic legs eventually learning that his survival story has become an important one for those who struggle in their own lives to rebound from unforeseen tragedy.

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“Stronger” comes many months after another 2016/2017 Boston bombing film, “Patriots Day”, and where that film focused on the entirety of the bombing and dramatized much of the events, this movie it well focused with only a single person at the core of the experience. Immediately the first compliment I can give this film is it is a tastefully done story. We do see the bombings happen and we even get a glimpse of Tamerlan Tsarnaev just before the bombs go off. The film doesn’t dwell on the actual event however, quickly moving to the aftermath of the tragedy with patients in the hospital and Bauman’s status made clear right away. The rest of the film does chronicle what occurs in the ensuing weeks and months, but only in the background as we experience everything from Bauman’s perspective. While this may seem like it would make a story with so much significance more one dimensional, it actually works focusing on a single struggle and battle as a result of the incident to put things into perspective for viewers who could only imagine what it must have been like in the days and weeks and months following the event. The Boston Bombings are simply a catalyst that spark the bigger story, so the film does the events and victims respect but focuses more on the message of survival and recovery which is really where this story belongs.

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At the center of it all is Jake Gyllenhaal as Jeff Bauman providing an intense and powerfully dedicated performance as an imperfect man thrust into the public eye in the wake of the tragedy. What I enjoyed most about this performance is that Gyllenhaal doesn’t glorify Bauman. He portrays him as the man Bauman admits he was, a lazy individual with difficulty dedicating to anyone and an obsession with the Red Sox. Gyllenhaal’s accent is spot on and throughout the film he oozes personality, but also shows a believable struggle and emotional depth when his PTSD and the consequences of his lifestyle kick in. Bauman is an average every-day man with his own problems and issues that all of a sudden became the face of survival from an unspeakable act of violence without warning and you can see as he recovers and adjusts to his new lifestyle that his new found fame and handicap combine to create a lot of pressure, stress, and even ego within Bauman that define his struggles. You believe Gyllenhaal himself is going through these horrific life changes and revelations with a performance that, frankly, is as Oscar worthy as everyone says it is. This is the kind of commitment the Academy was made to acknowledge.

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As Bauman’s confidant, his on-and-off girlfriend Erin was a big part of his story and in this film she is played by a perfectly cast Tatiana Maslany whose chemistry with Jake Gyllenhaal is incredibly believable. She, herself, is a flawed human who keeps going back to a broken relationship and has to live with the knowing that Bauman only lost his legs to be there for her even when they weren’t together. Partially out of guilt and partially out of love she follows him through his journey until the strains of Bauman’s life and his changing attitude finally force her over the edge. It’s not the handicap however that pushes her to the edge. It’s his attitude and his refusal to grow up and to take charge of the life he has left that creates her frustration in a fine example of heartbreak and pain that can impact any relationship after such a tragedy. Once again we see a committed and believable performance by a young actress trying to make a name for herself with a powerful role. Maslany perfectly captures the fear, insecurity, and even the strength of her character and plays well off of Gyllenhaal to create a love story that is relatable and heartfelt.

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Before I move on I have to give a lot of credit to another standout character in this film, Miranda Richardson’s portrayal of Bauman’s mother Patty who, in the film at least, is portrayed as an alcoholic mother who is proud of her son but goes overboard in putting him in the public’s eye. Patty is an interesting case. She’s a woman whose lifestyle we probably don’t agree with, but we don’t hate her. Richardson does an amazing job portraying Patty as someone you would probably disagree with, but you can sympathize with because she’s not in it for the fame. She just wants the world to see the strong, confident young man she calls her son. She doesn’t revel in his tragic circumstance, but rather overplays it to try and add significance to her and her son’s place in the world. I found myself frustrated, in a good way, by this performance because it was so spot on in terms of adding depth to who this woman was and the effect she had on Bauman’s life in the wake of the blasts. It’s a performance that puts a wrench in the gears of Bauman’s life and his recovery from the blast and serves as a source of conflict for the underlying love story as well as a representation of the influences on Bauman as he transforms as a character. I think it’s one of the strongest performances in the whole movie and should be commended.

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As for the movie as a whole the cinematography and shooting style is immaculate.  Director David Gordon Green makes some very interesting stylistic choices for the movie that are brilliantly subtle and perfectly capture the emotion and tension in each scene.  In one scene we see one of the Tsarnaev brothers walk by Bauman, but his image is foggy as the focus remains on our main character, a shooting choice that adds to the tension of what we know is about to take place. Later on we see the bandages come off of Bauman and the camera is positioned right by his face with his legs once again blurry due to the focus. We experience every wince as if we were there and this approach to filmmaking is surprisingly consistent throughout the film, forcing viewers not to dwell on the more obvious elements of the scene but to focus on Bauman and how he tackles the situation. After all, this is his story, and as I said before the focus on this film should be on the recovery and survival of Bauman. We never loose sight of whose story this is and the pain and agony, both physically and emotionally, that Bauman feels. It’s an important aspect of he film that makes it all the more impactful.

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Most of all though, “Stronger” is a very controlled and reserved approach to the tragedy that took place in 2013. Whereas “Patriot’s Day” held nothing back in its presentation of the explosions and the ensuing carnage, “Stronger” shows us very little, but manages to do so much. It’s a very mature and focused take on the incident that doesn’t go too overboard while effectively tugging at the heart strings with every turn of events. As the movie transitions to Bauman’s more personal experiences it even handles these with care including a bout of PTSD during a Bruins game, Bauman’s inevitable flashback to the exact moment after the blast (where we DO in fact see the carnage of his legs), and Bauman’s realization that he will be having a kid with Erin, but his handicap will forever change what kind of father he can be. Each of these events blend into a full story that goes just far enough to produce an emotional reaction and connection without going too overboard into cliché territory. This alone makes “Stronger” a respectable and powerful cinematic experience worth embracing.

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“Stronger” isn’t necessarily flawless however. It suffers mostly from a pretty bland script, but the cast more than makes up for it with powerful performances and great delivery. The cinematography is great, the pacing is great, and the acting is flawless. If it weren’t for the less than perfect writing “Stronger’ would be an absolutely perfect piece of American filmmaking. But, there’s a reason why the film’s only major flaw is seen here as a footnote, because it doesn’t detract from the story in any real way. In fact the bland writing may actually have worked in “Stronger’s” favor because it adds a more human element to the film. These are imperfect people dealing with the aftermath of a horrible tragedy with one person thrust into the center of the public recovery effort in as people searched for hope. These are real people, people who didn’t talk and act by a script but were imperfect and had their own way of talking and looking at the world. It may not have been intentional, but adding more real and relatable aspect to the film through clunky dialogue and bland conversation might actually have made this a better movie because there was plenty of potential to overplay each situation and to go a little too far in capturing the emotional depth of the story. This might be a rare occurrence where mediocrity actually worked, and that’s mostly due to every other aspect of the film bringing out the best of what there was to work with.

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“Stronger” is an inspiring movie. It’s full of amazing performances, well controlled stories that all come together into a tale of one man’s recovery and it’s a tasteful presentation of the aftermath of an event that destroyed the lives of many as they knew it. This story is one that deserved to be told and while it may be a little too soon after the bombings for it to earn the respect it deserves, “Stronger” is a must see movie that will hopefully live up to its early Oscar buzz. There’s so much to appreciate here and while it may certainly take some time to gain its much deserved following, “Stronger” will live on as a tale we all need to see that teaches us that even in the worst of times there is hope, that life goes on and in the end you’ll be stronger for it.

 

 

 

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