A theme appears to be emerging in a lot of 2017 pop culture. It’s become one of the defining features of Game of Thrones, runs through the layered narratives of Dunkirk, and takes center stage once again in Stronger, a film that plays with an implied tagline, “What doesn’t kill you, makes you…” It’s fitting for a world that feels more in flux and in peril than many of us have experienced in our lifetimes, this idea that there’s a level of heroism in mere survival, that enduring and living to fight or simply wake up to another day is something worth celebrating, something noble.
Stronger may not explore this concept as fantastically as Thrones or as grippingly or viscerally as Dunkirk, but there’s a ground level inspiration to it that’s worth admiring. It depicts the story of real life Boston Marathon bombing survivor Jeff Bauman (played by Jake Gyllenhaal, doing his Jake thing), and is adapted from his memoir.
Bauman was in the crowd at the finish line at the time of the explosions, which resulted in the loss of both his legs, but was able to provide information to the police to help identify one of the bombers. His story was widely reported, making him a public hero to the city of Boston and the nation in the aftermath of the attack, but despite his family’s insistence that he capitalize on his fame, his private struggle to recover both physically and psychologically from the incident is a daunting one.
While not exactly being unexplored cinematic terrain (which the movie acknowledges in a reference to Lieutenant Dan), there’s specificity to Stronger that establishes it as a fairly compelling narrative. There are of course the Boston accents that people can get hung up on or not, but the true-life aspect of this, the depiction of a relatively recent news event, is hard to dismiss or be left unaffected by.
The working class nature of the ensemble of characters is, likewise, endearing as much as it can be grating to witness another Boston bar fight. Its final act leans in on what feels like a bit of sentimental cliche, including a mother (Miranda Richardson, who is nevertheless fabulous) just trying her best, but is that entirely inappropriate for a movie about a man who went through what Bauman went through?
The keystone of a film like this is its lead, and Gyllenhaal’s performance is the quality we’ve come to expect by now. It’s a curse of his talent that work this good has become almost mundane for Jake. He’s just doing his Jake thing. It’s a little like watching Tom Brady. There’s plenty to appreciate: the emotional journey he goes through feels honest and elicits sympathy; the physicality of his recovery is grueling and he makes you feel his pain in every moment; he captures and maintains a dark humor in the character that conveys both his enduring spirit and his sad resignation to the limitations of his new body. It’s a strong performance from a gifted actor.
For me though (and I’ll admit all kinds of bias given that I’ve been a fan since the mid-2000s), the movie’s X-factor is Tatiana Maslany, who plays Bauman’s on-again, off-again girlfriend slash partner, Erin. The film’s focus is and should be on Bauman and his story, but there could be a great movie all about Maslany’s Erin.
Most know her as the performer who transforms into countless characters on Orphan Black, and while her ability to pull that off is incredible, the work she does in a movie like Stronger feels more significant. Revolutionary, maybe. She’s stated that the aspirational figure for her is Gena Rowlands, and this comes through most in a character like Erin – internal, understated, not feeling like a character at all but a person behaving as though no one is watching. She’s easy to miss or look past. Honestly, I don’t know how to do her justice.
The scenes where she’s actively involved are noticeably stronger, too. There’s a pivotal moment involving an argument she has with Gyllenhaal’s character in a car that showcases her at her best. Jake is doing his Jake thing, shouting and expressing in a kind of shock and awe way (which is great!), and Maslany takes a moment where you see all kinds of anger and fear register on her face, but she remains unintimidated, calling him out, not backing down. He breaks down, but her response changes the way this moment plays.
Interestingly, the movie’s not as much of a love story as its description would suggest. The lack of tidiness to their relationship is a welcome feature, given that the actual Jeff and Erin have separated once again since the film was made. The pairing of Gyllenhaal and Maslany never feels quite like a fit, which may strike some as bad chemistry, but could also be a clever design.
Director David Gordon Green has opted for more mainstream projects recently, helming Stronger and last year’s Our Brand is Crisis, and I’d like to think based on his previous work that he elevates this material. But does it elevate him? The uneven relationship at the core of the film, which is essential to its protagonist’s journey in adapting and enduring, almost feels like it reflects a director more interesting than what we’ve seen of late.
This ambivalence might be unwarranted, though. By the end, Stronger feels like you’ve just watched a nice story unfold in front of you. With performances that captivate and the depiction of a real human being, once broken, successfully putting himself back together – and maybe that’s good enough.
Stronger complicates the notion of the public hero in its heartfelt telling of Boston marathon bombing survivor Jeff Bauman's story, with terrific performances from Jake Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Maslany.