When I saw Stronger’s trailer, I’ll admit I was somewhat wary. I’m not here for patriotic faffing if nothing intelligent is going to come of it. So colour me surprised when the reviews started pouring in, and most of them were quite positive. Even some notoriously hard-to-please critics actually enjoyed it. So that was that: I no longer doubted the film, and decided to get out and see it instead of Battle of the Sexes (which, while also well-reviewed, did not have quite as much support).
I see now why many critics liked it. It’s not your usual jingoistic steak-eater’s gruel, instead choosing to perceptively question the label of “national hero” after a devastating tragedy. The protagonist, Jeff Bauman, is just an Average Joe who’s irresponsible and insensitive. The kind of guy who, in most circumstances, would blend in with the crowd at a bar as he chugs down a few pints. To support his ex-girlfriend, he cheers her on at the finish line of the 2012 Boston Marathon. Then the unthinkable happens: a bomber brushes past him and detonates his explosives. Jeff regains consciousness to find both his legs severed at the knee, a stranger tying ligatures to staunch the blood. Someone snaps a photo as he’s carted off to an ambulance, and the rest is history: he becomes the Visible Survivor, and thus an Inspiration.
Instead of putting Jeff on a pedestal, the film knocks it away. Though he is a survivor, he is not suddenly redeemed of his sins. As his family glories in his newfound celebrity, he cowers from it, uncomfortable by all the attention. The Boston Strong mentality becomes hollow and unrewarding, because in Jeff’s eyes, losing his legs has not changed him as a person. Furthermore, he must now learn to adapt to a physical disability that requires an inordinate amount of time and effort to overcome. He does not know if he has it in him to keep going, to rehabilitate and return to a normal way of life. Everything hurts.
Compared to something like Andy Serkis’ Breathe, which mostly disregards its subject’s psychological struggles in favour of cheap sentiment, Stronger is all about Bauman’s interiority. Unsurprisingly, it makes the film all the better for it, because it allows his journey to unfold as a process that is neither entirely flattering nor entirely inspirational. It’s all about the pains and scars of adaptation, and if inspiration is an inevitable part of Jeff’s narrative, at least it feels like a natural extension of it. Even then, what I admired about the film was its resistance to turn him into an abstraction, and while the ending does cater in some well-worn clichés, Jeff Bauman does not cease being Jeff Bauman.
Jake Gyllenhaal is wonderful here, giving a deeply physical and committed performance. I must say, though, I was blown away by how fantastic Tatiana Maslany was. She brings depth to her character (Bauman’s on-again, off-again girlfriend) with a quiet inner fortitude and grace, and I felt I got to know her about as much as I did Bauman. Miranda Richardson’s Patty (Bauman’s mother) is broader and slightly less developed, though I have to say, she’s completely believable as a messy woman whose heart is in the right place.
Stronger is not amazing or anything, but this is the kind of path disability narratives should try to follow. Focus on the subject’s psyche, don’t sacrifice their struggle for drippy platitudes, and be true to their journey. There are still kinks to be worked out, and that’s fine. We’re getting there.