American cinema is no stranger to inspirational biopics, especially when centered around devastating events. Taking Hollywood’s pre-9/11 obsession with terrorism – brilliantly explored in Michal Kosakowski’s Just Like the Movies – and coupling that with America’s fondness for “Based on True Events” films, nearly every tragedy is given a cinematic retelling nowadays. However, not every film is among the ranks of Paul Greengrass’ United 93: a heart-pounding, clinical approach to the retaliation of Flight 93. In fact, most of these titles exist somewhere between exploitative and schmaltzy. Rather than investigating the genuine issues and human aspects of the story, the incident is used as a device to assault the audience’s senses through the taking of historical liberties and dramatic effects. What this creates is a dishonest atmosphere that ponders the question: how invested can these films be when so many are pumped out? Take for instance, Peter Berg’s Patriots Day, another Boston Marathon film which was released some mere couple months after his previous disaster film, Deepwater Horizon.
Ultimately, this lack of sincerity in Hollywood produces a general apathy towards films like David Gordon Green’s Stronger. It isn’t a must-see title, as films with similar historical narratives have come before it and will continue in droves after. Adapted from the autobiography of the same name, Stronger tells the story of 2013 Boston Marathon victim Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) as he adapts to life post-attack. Helmed by the ever-confounding David Gordon Green – seriously, this is the guy that went from George Washington to Your Highness and has the season premiere of Vice Principals this same week – Stronger manages to break free of the mold. In fact, Stronger is such a surprisingly powerful film that it could even garner some awards attention based on merit rather than content.
By investing interest into Bauman and those around him as human beings rather than a victim and his loved ones, Green manages to create a portrait of a troubled individual who was in pain long before the attack. Meaning that, through Green’s knack for tertiary characters and his examination of American hero culture, one can conclude that Bauman’s self-destructive tendencies are a byproduct of society rather than the attack. Lying on the ground post-bombing, Bauman continuously mutters, “Help someone else,” leaving the audience wondering if this is a selfless act or the final wish of a man with self-destructive tendencies? If the Snow Angels DVD on Bauman’s TV shelf isn’t indication enough, Green argues the latter as this is a film of moral ambiguity and tortured souls.
Without its ensemble – Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Miranda Richardson, Clancy Brown, Carlos Sanz – Stronger could not have worked. The performances and chemistry between this group of performers is immense to say the least. Much like the Coen Brothers, Green knows how to make the smallest of performances as impactful as the leads. A lunch meeting with Bauman’s rescuer, Carlos Arredondo (Carlos Sanz), being the greatest example of this.
Now, while the performances are powerful, it is through the Sean Bobbitt’s (12 Years a Slave, The Place Beyond the Pines, Hunger) photography and Dylan Tichenor’s (There Will Be Blood, Brokeback Mountain, Magnolia) editing that Stronger can defy cliché and convention. Long, uninterrupted takes are the heart and soul of the film as Bobbitt, Tichenor, Green, and the ensemble produce some astounding and heart wrenching sequences. What could have been footnotes in a different production, are intimate and delicate portraits of suffering and its many facets (the changing of bandages being the highlight). Bauman’s trauma is a sustained presence, and through this durational approach it is perfectly captured.
Along with the astonishing techs is Green’s criticism of American hero culture. Post-attack, Bauman suffers from PTSD, and the links between society’s hagiographical approach to him and his pain is obvious. As Bauman questions his heroic status, he is thrusted into the spotlight as a symbol of resilience in the face of terror, a position he never chose. The weight of his fame and his family vicariously living through it relegates Bauman as a supporting role in his own story. In this sense, Stronger is a condemnation of hero culture and the films that go along with it, arguing instead that human connection and an accepting of one’s flaws is the saving grace of society. Meaning that, Bauman’s coming-to-terms with himself as a human, rather than a hero, is what allows him to finally take the literal steps needed to become the man and father he is capable of being.
However, as great as the techs are, Stronger still has its issues, the biggest of which being its portrayal of Bauman’s savior, Carlos Arredondo. As proficient as Green is in avoiding genre trappings, the eventual treatment of Arredondo as a plot device is an inexcusable fault. This is best viewed in the Fenway Park sequence as Bauman – not Arredondo, who isn’t even given a sign of acknowledgement – is greeted by Red Sox pitcher, Pedro Martinez. In real life, Bauman and Arredondo threw out the first pitch together, yet in the film, it is Bauman’s moment only. For a film as adept as Stronger, this is tragic misstep that wears on the film. While one could argue this is a purposeful tactic to illustrate the mistreatment of minority figures in the genre, the film surrounding doesn’t support the claim.
Ultimately, Stronger is still a step above the rest. An intimate, thought-provoking work from David Gordon Green that may momentarily succumb to the trappings it so adamantly avoids, yet still packs enough of an emotional wallop to work.