Director: David Gordon Green
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Miranda Richardson
To be honest, by far the main reason I went to see this film was the live Q&A afterwards with Jake Gyllenhaal. This film hadn’t massively appealed to me beforehand (apart from my love for Jake) because it did seem to be that classic “able-bodied movie star plays a real-life disabled person in blatant Oscar bait”. This is the same reason that wild horses could not drag me to see the upcoming ‘Breathe’ with Andrew Garfield. I know disabled film writers who are very uncomfortable with all films about disabled people having to be ‘inspirational’ and ‘heroic’, instead of representing disabled people as nuanced and flawed humans. The other reason for my discomfort is that this is already the second film we have had on the very recent Boston marathon bombings. It seems soon to be unpicking a complex situation and casting very clear heroes and villains.
However, after hearing Gyllenhaal speak, as a producer as well as star of the film, it is clear that he got to know the real-life Jeff Bauman very well during the development of this biopic. Also, Jeff is portrayed as a deeply flawed person, even after the tragic events that result in his legs being amputated above the knee. Before the marathon, Jeff is a young guy who works at Costco (which turns out to be extreme lucky due to their excellent health insurance), drinks too much and has an on again-off again girlfriend, Erin (‘Orphan Black’s’ Tatiana Maslany). For a significant amount of time after the bombing, he is still pretty much the same and quite unlikeable. If anything, he’s more hard-drinking, argumentative and prone to tempers and depression. Additionally, the realities of being a wheelchair user in a tiny apartment on the second floor are not shied away from, including using the toilet and shower.
Some of the most effective parts of this film come in the immediate aftermath of the bombing, when Jeff is in hospital. I found out from the Q&A that they used many of the real doctors and nurses that attended Jeff to add authenticity to these scenes. There is an excruciating section in which Jeff has his bandages changed for the first time and it is shot from his point-of-view, mostly blurred, with the doctors’ soothing tones coming from off-screen. The physical therapist who helps Jeff in the following weeks and months is also played by the real-life person. I was delighted to see Miranda Richardson, playing very much against type as Jeff’s alcoholic working-class Boston mother. The acting from all concerned is impressive, including Gyllenhaal of course. It will gall me slightly if he wins an Oscar for this though, when he has had far more interesting performances and films (‘Zodiac’, ‘Nightcrawler’, ‘Enemy,’ ‘Nocturnal Animals’) which have been overlooked.
It is after things come to a head with his girlfriend Erin, that Jeff hits rock bottom and is forced to evaluate his life. This is when the film falls into the classic ‘disabled hero’ trope, featuring montages of him getting incrementally stronger, learning to walk on prosthetic legs and turning his life around. It is the ‘triumph over adversity’ heroics and sentimentality that don’t sit well with me. However, the film could have gone further with this and does reign it in to a degree. The film also shows Jeff’s discomfort with all of the media attention, fan mail etc labeling him a hero (he even gets a catchphrase; Boston Strong!) when he does not feel like one. In summary, Stronger is not a terrible film, but not a particularly amazing or memorable one either. It is definitely saved by its performances and occasional interesting cinematography/editing. A solid addition to a genre of film that I generally do not like.