FILM REVIEW: Biopic ‘Stronger’ shows quiet agonies of rehabilitation, pressures of celebrity

BY Brooke Corso | Special to The Monitor

“Stronger” (2017)

STARRING Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Miranda Richardson, Clancy Brown

DIRECTOR David Gordon Green


There is a measure for indicating success in any biopic about a human being overcoming unimaginable odds, and that is whether the veil over the applause is lifted. Naturally, instances of applause will be present because we as the audience are instructed we must join in the praise, instead of showing us why it is merited.

In “Stronger,” the story of a Jeff Bauman who was horrifically injured in the bombings at the 2013 Boston Marathon, we are as invested in his survival as his adjustment, not just to his redesigned life, but to being a part of something bigger than himself and taking agency over that.

Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) works at a Costco but his world revolves around his buddies, drinking and sports. He begs off work to run to the local pub so he can sit in his lucky seat and grab a magic beer that will enchant his team to win. While at the bar, he spots his on-off girlfriend, Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany) raising money for the Marathon for which she is training. Bauman can’t understand such dedication, but he spots her face from across a crowded room and helps her collect a few bucks, then agrees to come out on race day and support her. They’ve broken up three times already due to his indecisiveness and undependability, so Erin takes his promise to cheer her on with a grain of salt. Erin is focused, a bit introverted, and steady in her choices.

Director David Gordon Green (“All the Real Girls,” “Pineapple Express,” “Prince Avalanche”) is a director of faces, and Sean Bobbitt’s camera angles and steady shots alternate between an individual’s vantage point and their active and passive response in a social situation. While Erin is running, less than a mile from the upcoming explosion, Jeff jostles the large crowd for a spot to hold up the poster he made. The explosion is shown in bits and pieces throughout the film, mostly from Jeff’s scattered recollection of the smoke and blood and screams. He was close enough to one of the bombers to notice details that investigators use, but he can’t remember the actual impact on his own limbs yet. He is at once disconnected from his own experience of the event as he is unwittingly involved in its ongoing evolution, and it contributes towards his feeling of helplessness.

Jeff’s harrowing moments in the crowded hospital, then at his cramped apartment he shares with his mother, Patty (the terrific Miranda Richardson), show him slowly becoming immersed in the surreal fame of being a survivor, and thus a symbol of hope to countless others. He now has a spotlight on his every move, and his life is less about his own progress and more about being an inspiration. Jeff doesn’t know how to cope with the loss of identity, the intrusiveness of the media and community, and the overwhelming goals he must set to walk again. He can’t even see the light at the end of the tunnel, so how can he process where to begin?

Gyllenhaal is fantastic at showing Jeff’s tenacity, which both helps and hinders his progress, and his fear of not even being the kind of person who can overcome such challenges, as he didn’t feel he was succeeding at life before the Marathon. To someone who had coasted through so many days and neglected the people who cared about him, how is he supposed to play a hero or inspire others? Where is the instruction manual or training seminars for adopting that persona. He doesn’t buy that merely existing makes him so, as it turns him into a passive spectator of his own life. He has to reclaim agency over how he is perceived and connect to people in his own way.

Wisely, Green takes his time with Jeff’s maturity. His family is Boston strong: big, loud, brash, adept at using vulgarities as terms of endearment. Their well-intentioned intrusiveness compounds the pressure on Jeff in the early months of his rehabilitation, but Erin becomes his calm center. Like Richardson, Maslany is excellent as the supportive girlfriend, but hers is not a one-note character; instead, Green puts her journey right up there with his as she puts her life on pause to take care of him, and then realizes that he doesn’t need two mothers. Against the rougher, louder Patty, Erin is a cool, calming force, but as the women begin to spar and quarrel over what is best for Jeff, he withdrawals further into a shell of immaturity and depression, unfocused and indifferent towards goals.

This is a rare movie that focuses on the deafening quiet that comes after the noise of the hospital stay, when showering and using the toilet are monumental tasks, and making love is like winning the lottery. Gyllenhaal shows Jeff in all his moments: hiding under the shower water, curled up in bed, trying to hang out with friends, enduring the agonies of rehab. His acceptance of the spotlight is difficult, as is his family’s. They are regular people fighting the overwhelming pressure of celebrity, and the overwhelming trauma of injury and rehab, by trying to survive day by day. For Jeff, he just wants his agency back, but he also needs to break out of his self-involved shell and see how the crisis affected other people, too. Everyone is processing in their own way. It helps to meet Carlos (Carlos Sanz), the man who helped him at the scene of the bombing, and how he was connected to the marathon, but also how he is now connected to Jeff. Suddenly, the crowds cheering him on at a Bruins or Red Sox game become people with faces and lives, and instead of being an untouchable nexus between people and event, he is now woven into the quilt of stories that interconnect. It makes the applause meaningful.