Movie Review - Stronger (2017)

This is the second film within the space of a year to have a dramatization of the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013. The first was Peter Berg's Patriots Day (2016), which focused on the police investigation to catch the terrorists who caused the bombings. This film focuses on one of the victims who lost both his legs in the explosion. The film follows the year in which the victim was in recovery and dealt with the aftermath. Directed here by David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express and All the Real Girls), this docudrama is very affecting, quite moving and provides a great vehicle for the actor in the center to drive straight to the Oscars. It also provides a very good visual effect that's worthy of recognition. It shines a light on people with a disability. It's unfortunate the film never employs or utilizes people who are actually disabled on screen. This film could have provided a great, acting opportunity for an actual, transtibial amputee.

Jake Gyllenhaal (The Day After Tomorrow and Jarhead) stars as Jeff Bauman, an employee at a Costco warehouse who is 27 and lives with his single mother in Chelmsford, a town that could be considered a suburb of Boston. His ex-girlfriend Erin, played by Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black), is running in the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. Jeff goes and waits for her at the finish line to support her. The finish line was the sight of the two bombs, and it's where Jeff lost both his legs.

What follows are things that we've seen before when it comes to movies about people who are sick or suffering from some illness or injury. After the explosion, Jeff wasn't in a coma but he was unconscious for the most part. Because Jeff was at the marathon to support her, Erin felt obligated to be at the hospital, despite being his ex-girlfriend. It was reminiscent of the recent The Big Sick. Yet, Maslany is a far better actor than Kumail Nanjiani who played the reticent ex in that film.

After Jeff wakes up, he has to deal with sudden fame and people thinking he's a hero when he doesn't feel as strong or as proud as everyone else in the Boston area, and especially when he feels he didn't do anything, despite helping police to identify one of the bombers. That fact isn't really accentuated at all. The movie proceeds as if he's just a survivor and that's it, which makes it a little if not totally dissimilar from how a lot of soldiers who come back after fighting in a war feel. They too can become a symbol to the public, a symbol to which the soldiers themselves feel they can't live up or of which they are not worthy.

Jeff is initially confined to a wheelchair. A friend or relative references a character from Forrest Gump (1994). Yet, when it comes to movies about men in wheelchairs, my mind went to Tom Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July (1989) as well as Marlon Brando in The Men (1950), but Gyllenhaal's performance seems to waiver somewhere between the two but never any better than each, or else it's just the movie itself feeling so derivative that it as a whole is never better than each. Gyllenhaal is good at expressing the pain and the depression, but when he would have these bursts of anger or freak-outs as he does in an elevator and in Erin's car, it felt like an actor acting, or rather over-acting. He wasn't bad, but I was briefly taken out of the movie in those moments. It still doesn't clear the high bar he set in his one and only Oscar nomination, Brokeback Mountain (2005), which still remains Gyllenhaal's best work.

Speaking of which, what also took me out the movie was the gay slurs at the beginning. There are a lot of f-bombs dropped in this film. The f-bombs were not only of the four-letter kind but also of the anti-gay variety. Jeff does somewhat rebuke them but not to great effect and it's an issue that's never brought up again, so the question is why have it in the movie at all. Are we supposed to be endeared by Jeff's friends and their homophobic tendencies even in the year 2013? It would have been as offensive as the casual dropping of the N-word.

It doesn't help that there was a fantastic film about a gay man in a wheelchair that doesn't drop slurs about straight people. It was Michael D. Akers' Morgan (2012), a movie that's more about accepting one's limitations, as well as accepting the burdens put onto you due to your disability and the burden it puts onto those around you who love you. When it comes to that burden, this movie plays a lot of the same beats as in Morgan or as in The Theory of Everything (2014), except Maslany isn't positioned as strongly here as Felicity Jones was.

Maslany still gives a strong performance, perhaps even stronger than Gyllenhaal's. He's good, but when it comes to his character, similarly to Andy Serkis doing motion-capture, it's as much about what Gyllenhaal is doing as it's also about the visual effects to make him seem like a double amputee below his knees. It's not new. It's an effect that was done to Marion Cotillard in Rust and Bone (2012).

Unfortunately, I was thinking about the visual effects more in this movie than in Rust and Bone, which is a little bit of a bad thing. The movie somehow became more about that visual effect than Jeff's arc of going from man-child to more responsible adult. It's cliché that it took getting his girlfriend pregnant to start that ball rolling, which is probably the truth of the matter, given this is a true story, but it's still a rather predictable turn for the movie to make.

Rated R for language, graphic injuries and brief sexuality with nudity.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 59 mins.

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