TIFF 2017 Review: Stronger is David Gordon Green’s Best Film Yet.
Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Jeff Bauman in the true-life story of a man whose life forever changes after the Boston Marathon Bombing. Jeff is a regular guy with an average life and problems. He is a bit of a flake which is the reason why his girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany) has left him. Determined to win her back, Jeff promises to attend the marathon and wait for her as she crosses the finish line. Sure enough, Jeff follows through on his promise only to discover a suspicious face in the crowd, who just so happens to be one of the bombers who turns out to be responsible for the attack.
Last year, I covered the Peter Berg/Mark Wahlberg film Patriots Day which was centered on the events leading up to and after the Boston Marathon Bombing. While I respected what Berg and Wahlberg set out to accomplish with the film, I felt almost guilt tripped into giving the film a great review due to the fact that so many people from Boston were involved with the project and gave it their blessing. Patriots Day felt like it was made to define what it meant to be “Boston Strong” while Stronger feels like a much more intimate film about how one man’s life was forever changed by a terrorist attack.
What I admire so much about Stronger is that the film doesn’t focus on the bombing but rather how the event effected the life of Jeff, his family, and his girlfriend. I applaud screenwriter John Pollono for adapting Bret Witter and Jeff Bauman’s story in a way that is very true to life. Jeff isn’t shown as this hero which everyone makes him out to be after surviving the attack. Instead, he is shown as flawed, lazy, and sometimes even a bit unlikeable.
I have said this before and I will say it again but it is easy for any writer to take any story and write the characters in a positive light and ignore their flaws. However, that isn’t realistic or true to life. Every character in this film has their good moments and their bad. It is what makes these characters feel like real people rather than caricatures. It is so much easier for audiences to connect with Jeff and Erin because they have problems and lives that exist outside of the bombing.
John Pollono wasn’t afraid to tackle the hypocrisy of how others view victims of a horrific event. People often put people on pedestals because they survived an act of terror. Jeff questions why everyone continues to say they are proud of him and why the city treats him like royalty. His very own family begins to exploit the incident as a way to get their 15 minutes of fame.
At one point in the film, Jeff’s mom Patty played by Miranda Richardson announces during a BBQ that Oprah is coming to interview Jeff. Erin gets upset by this announcement and begins to speak up. She says that Jeff doesn’t want to be in the spotlight anymore yet Patty continues to insist that the interview has to happen. She even goes as far to mention that the only reason why the interview is happening is so she can celebrate her boy’s bravery and show the world how strong he is.
Stronger is focused mainly on the Bauman family and not on the other victims of the bombing. This, in my opinion, makes the film easier for the viewer to connect with the story and this family. We have seen too many films that tackle tragic events such as terrorist attacks and war. Stronger is a personal film and one that is character driven rather than event driven. This is a major difference between this film and many others that attempt to tackle tragic events.
Jake Gyllenhaal once again proves that he can tackle any role. Gyllenhaal becomes Jeff Bauman and adds a real sense of authenticity to his performance. There are moments where as a viewer you feel as though you know Jeff as a person. Gyllenhaal’s performance combined with the strong writing and solid direction to connect with Jeff Bauman as a person. You get a sense of his personality and what makes him tick. Jeff’s living situation is very controlled therefore it is no surprise that during one scene Erin asks Jeff to “man up” and stop letting his mother baby him.
Speaking of Erin, Tatiana Maslany gives a career defining performance as Erin Hurley. Again, just like Gyllenhaal, she presents Erin as a real person and not some Hollywoodized depiction. She can come off as a bit “bitchy” at times but that’s understandable due to the situations that she is forced to face. It is very obvious that Erin loves Jeff and always tries to look past his flaws or mistakes. There is a scene in Erin’s car where the two begin to have a serious conversation about their future. Erin begins to break down which as a result causes Jeff to start yelling back. This is such an intense and honest moment. This one scene could result in a nomination for both of the actors. This is how emotionally powerful the scene is.
The rest of the cast is fine but no one, in particular, stands out. I can’t decide if this is a good thing or a bad thing because, in all fairness, I don’t really know any of the other actors in the film with the exception of Richardson. Each supporting actor plays a family member or a resident of Boston and feels like a real person rather than an actor. The strong performances by Gyllenhaal and Maslany are so great that it makes all the supporting cast seem rather amateurish. These actors are playing the everyday lower class to middle-class Bostonians so I didn’t have a huge issue with them just being “ok” or “fine” but I can’t help but point out that they are all outshined by the two leads.
There are a few other minor issues that I had with the film such as the lack of focus on the relationship between Jeff and Bret which was very interesting but seemed to come out of nowhere near the end. I would have loved to had more screen time with these two interacting because there was a great story there but it didn’t get as much attention as it deserved. I also felt like there were a few moments that were just thrown into the film to show family drama going on when I didn’t get a real sense that they need to be there.
Stronger is David Gordon Green’s best film to date and tells a very intimate and personal story. Gyllenhaal and Maslany could be nominated for their honest and genuine performances while Jeff’s story will remind audiences that there is always something in life worth fighting for. Stronger is a life-affirming film that will leave audiences feeling a sense of hope and reassurance when exiting the theater. Jeff Bauman’s story is one of strength but one about an everyday man that is forced to face a series of unexpected events that changed his life.
Scott ‘Movie Man’ Menzel rating for Stronger is an 8 out of 10.