Stronger – Film Review by David Minogue
Directed by David Gordon Green
Written by John Pollono. Based on the book Stronger by Jeff Bauman & Bret Witter
Stars – Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Mislany, Miranda Richardson, Clancy Brown
On the 15th of April 2013 two bombs that detonated near the finish line of the Boston Marathon killed three people and injured two hundred and sixty four others. One of the most severely injured people that day was Jeff Bauman, a 27 year old man who had been there to support his ex-girlfriend Erin Hurley. A photograph of Jeff being brought to safety in a wheelchair showed the full scale of his injuries. He later had both of his legs amputated above his knees. Over the next few days and weeks Jeff became a symbol of resilience and strength to the people of Boston and the United States. The film producer Todd Lieberman later encouraged Jeff to write about his experiences and journey to recovery. His book Stronger which was co-written with Bret Witter was published a year after the bombing. Lieberman, working with screenwriter John Pollono, then adapted Jeff’s story into a feature film and David Gordon Green was hired as director. Jake Gyllenhaal was cast as Jeff in the film and throughout the production he worked closely with him in order to accurately depict him on screen. In 2016 Peter Berg’s film Patriots Day focused on the bombing, its aftermath and the hunt to catch the men responsible for the atrocity. Stronger focuses on the story of one man and his family and how to learn to cope after the event.
Stronger begins its story shortly before the day of the bombing. Early scenes depict Jeff at his Costco retail job and later in a bar surrounded by his family and friends. They are firmly established as the emotional and social core of his life and are presented on screen as rowdy and loud. The group include his separated parents Jeff Sr. (Clancy Brown) and his mother Patty (Miranda Richardson) who he lives with in a small two bedroom apartment in Boston. In the bar Jeff helps raise charity money for Erin (Tatiana Maslany) who is running in the marathon and who at the time he was broken up with. He promises to be there at the finish line to support her but because of his lack of commitment and always being late she is sceptical. When the two bombs detonate at the marathon it is Erin’s point of view that is shown. The full scale of Jeff’s injuries is not initially shown but is later through traumatic flashbacks. Pollono’s screenplay in focusing on Jeff’s family and friends allows them to also represent the reaction of the wider Boston public. The confusion and aspect of not knowing if a loved one is still alive is depicted well. Pollono strives to present an unsentimental portrayal of the reality of a horrific event on a man and the people in his life. While Jeff is depicted as someone who learns to use his own inner strength in order to recover, his family are depicted with a mixture of care and brashness. There is a sense that throughout his life Jeff is already dominated by his family emotionally. Erin is depicted on the periphery of his life both before and after the bombing and Stronger is also the story of how she comes back into his life. One of the scenes that this is most accurately depicted is where Jeff’s family and friends crowd around his hospital bed and Erin can be seen trying to raise her head to see him from the corner of the room.
In real life Jeff was a crucial person in helping with information about what happened on the day of the bombing and the man hunt that followed. This is highlighted but then is not referred back to. The film focuses almost entirely on the physical and emotional reality of how Jeff began to cope with his injuries and the changes in his life. Alongside his journey is Erin’s own strength as she becomes his main carer and emotional support. Both Jake Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Mislany commit entirely to their roles as Jeff and Erin. The use of CGI maintains the believability of Jeff’s injuries and disability on screen.
David Gordon Green is mainly known for his commercial comedies such as Pineapple Express and Your Highness but he has also made smaller thoughtful independent films such as Prince Avalanche and George Washington. Pollono’s screenplay incorporates elements of those films in Stronger with scenes exploring the redefinition of Greg and Erin relationship forming the emotional core. The film overall examines the concept of how a person becomes a face of heroism and defiance in the aftermath of a public and national tragedy. It is the hope that person gives to others that Jeff Bauman’s story through Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance depicts.