Shortly after its opening scenes, David Gordon Green’s Stronger has the look and feel of what appears to be a made-for-television movie. The lighting and cinematography looks almost exactly like something that would appear on the Hallmark Channel, and the subject matter revolving around a survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing is appropriate for that station. But the difference between a typical made-for-TV movie and Stronger is that Green’s film doesn’t go straight for the idolization aspect of its main character. This is good, because it’s exactly what the main character is like. He doesn’t see himself as a hero, and Green approaches it in that same fashion as not seeing him as a hero and not forcing the audience to think he’s a hero.
But the main issue with Stronger is that for all the moments in which we witness Gyllenhaal’s character struggle with everything that has happened post-bombing, a lot of it just feels so standard. It feels like it was specifically made so that Gyllenhaal can hopefully get that Oscar win. He is good, very good in many moments. It would be beneficial if he was in a better movie.
Jeff Bauman (Gyllenhaal) is a Costco employee who attends the Boston Marathon to support his on-again, off-again girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany). She’s dumped him three times, due to his unwillingness to commit to anything, but he still supports her in everything. Jeff just happens to be right by where one of the bombs explodes, and, as a result, he has both legs amputated. But before the bomb went off, he saw the man responsible. During his recovery, he informs the police. This effort he made has now turned him into a hero for Boston. But it’s not something he sees himself as, nor is it something he wants.
The great thing about Gyllenhaal’s performance is that, even though we know he’s portraying a character and this is just a movie about that person’s life, he disappears into the role. Not once do we think that he’s just Jake Gyllenhaal playing another character. All the interactions and situations involving Gyllenhaal come across as real. When he’s frustrated and explodes at the members of his family and/or his girlfriend, it’s heart-wrenching stuff. Gyllenhaal has complete command of the screen in these moments.
Speaking of his family, they’re a bunch of loudmouth, vulgar Bostonians that love their liquor. Jeff’s mother, Patty (Miranda Richardson), is especially that. She and the rest of the family are all for Jeff getting national attention, and they consider him a hero as well. They’re too caught up in the moment that they fail to realize how harmful everything has become to Jeff.
Also worthy of mentioning is Maslany. She still has hope for Jeff, despite their relationship hitting what seem to be endpoints along the way before they find a method that starts it up again. Jeff is not the most mature person on the planet, and that remains the same even after the bombing. Unleashing her anger and frustrations gives Maslany the opportunity to really shine and show that her role is more than just the typical girlfriend that gives up everything role.
For all the times in which Stronger plays against the uplifting clichés, there are too many instances in which it falls prey to the genre traps. Although we see Jeff struggling with his new way of living, there’s not much emotional investment into his character outside of when his emotions reach their breaking point. Its execution comes across as predictable, and everything feels more distant than it should be. Stronger is not a bad movie by any means, but it certainly doesn’t break the mold of inspirational dramas in order to stand out well on its own.
The one special feature on the Blu-ray is a 30-minute behind-the-scenes look at the making of Stronger that features interviews with the cast and crew, as well as the real-life Bauman himself. Although it’s the only feature on the Blu-ray, it’s nice to see a behind-the-scenes look that is just one, smooth-flowing segment and not broken down into multiple features.
After Patriots Day and now Stronger, it’s more than likely that Hollywood will continue to find some way to create another film out of the Boston Marathon bombing. And that’s totally fine, but if they want to focus on one particular person involved, there needs to be more investment in the characters and less routine procedures. That’s where Stronger struggles, thus making it kind of a letdown.