David Gordon Green is one of the bewildering film-makers in American cinema. He has started his career with low-budget indie features – All the Real Girls, George Washington, and Undertow – which are all lyrical reflection on life in small-town America. He then gained mainstream success with stoner buddy-comedy Pineapple Express (2009). After the main-stream misfires like The Sitter and Your Highness, Green moved back to make festival-primed independent features like Prince Avalanche (remake of Iceland drama) and Joe (Nicolas Cage’ best role in the last decade). His career took another turn when he opted to direct political satire Our Brand is Crisis, a Sandra Bullock vehicle which received mixed reviews. With his latest modestly-budgeted drama Stronger (2017), Gordon Green has captivatingly mixed his sharp meditative gaze into an emotional true story which in the hands of a lesser film-maker would have been a monotonous melodrama. The director continues to frustrate audiences’ inclination to label him since his upcoming project includes the remake of John Carpenter’s cult classic Halloween (1978) and ‘Newsflash’, a drama on the famous CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite.
Stronger tells the sad as well as uplifting tale of Jeff Bauman, a survivor of Boston Marathon Bombing (on April 15, 2013) who lost both his legs to the terrorist attack yet helped to correctly identify the culprits. The every-man Jeff’s gradual recovery from the personal trauma is one thoroughly inspiring story for those of us who struggle with myriad of adversities in life. The film was based on Jeff’s autobiography book of the same name. Stronger does sounds like strictly formulaic affair, designed to cheaply extract every bit of heightened emotions of the protagonist’s struggles. Some may wonder whether the movie uses the hero’s physically challenged status as a mere symbol to teach us an allegedly ‘inspirational’ lesson. Playwright and screenwriter John Pollono’s well fleshed-out script casts out such natural doubts. Mr. Pollono, who grew up near Chelmsford, Massachusetts (where Jeff Bauman is from), impeccably brings in a well-judged authenticity to the characters and their surroundings. This offers a very nuanced and intimate depiction of Jeff Bauman’s life and even when the narrative leaps to address the ‘inspiring triumph over adversity’ aspect of the story, it avoids unnecessary emotional grandstanding.
Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an affable, hard-drinking Bostonian man-child. He works the deli counter at Costco and naturally obsessed with the World Series. He vainly tries to win back the heart of his ex-girlfriend Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany). She is fed-up with Jeff’s broken promises yet she is attracted to his spirited demeanor. To disprove her misgivings about him, Jeff decides to show up at Boston Marathon, where Erin is running. He stands at the finish line to cheer her, when a bomb detonates leading to amputation of both of his legs (3 died and 16 people lost their limbs in this sad incident). Director Green sensibly films the explosion from a distance (from Erin’s perspective) and fills in the gruesome details only later during a heart-wrenching emotional scene. Jeff’s injury rings through Erin’s mind, since the rare occasion he has managed to keep his promise brought upon worst thing possible. She waits in the hospital lobby alongside Jeff’s freewheeling buddies and overbearing alcoholic mother (Miranda Richardson).
Jeff’s playful personality that deeply conceals his inner angst is marvelously expressed in the scene he gains consciousness. After learning his legs are amputated, he cracks a joke referring his predicament to Forrest Gump’s Lieutenant Dan. Jeff also discloses that he saw the bomber. In the following days, the terrorists are hunted down and Jeff’s status is elevated to that of local hero or celebrity. Using the distinctly American tone of exaggeration, Jeff’s circle of friends and relatives claim ‘the world has turned its attention on him’. Jeff, however, understands that the newfound fame is gonna pass or turn stale and what’s possibly permanent is him being confined to a wheelchair. But everyone, except Erin, brags about Jeff’s next TV interview. During the games, he waves the flag and reduced to mere symbol of something grand. Like the motivational chant ‘Boston Strong’ that became rallying cry for Boston’s unity and resilience, Jeff Bauman is provided with monosyllabic purpose. The community, despite showcasing deep empathy to Jeff, unknowingly forces a role upon him. People try to weave a meaning out of a senseless crime by parading Jeff through the jam-packed stadiums (“Am I a hero for standing there and getting my legs blown off?”, he questions an jubilant admirer). This unwanted burden placed upon him makes Jeff to sink more into depression and embrace alcoholism. What’s more regretful is how Jeff gradually becomes oblivious to Erin’s selfless struggle as she cares for his betterment round the clock.
Jake Gyllenhaal is one of the very committed American actors working today and it shows in his diverse choice of roles, irrespective the project’s budget scale. With such an actor whose priorities lies in rehearsals and donning the character, rather than salary and luxurious accommodations, a breath of fresh air is diffused into the project. The technical crew too is much talented and experienced, including the veteran cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (Hunger, Shame, 12 Years a Slave, Loving Vincent, etc). Gordon Green says in an interview that, “Everyone had a voice in it. I am not a director who says, ‘This is how it is, and this is where the shot is’. I try and make it a playful place and to make the process as authentic as possible." Director Green’s perspective keenly closes in the distance between Bauman and viewers. By employing intimate close-ups repeatedly, he emphasizes on the protagonist’s agonized perspective without escalating it to melodramatic proportions. In one spectacular scene, when nurses change Jeff Bauman’s leg dressings, the camera keeps Gyllenhaal’s face in the foreground and blurs the procedure going on. While the close-up shot continues to register Jeff’s painful expressions, Erin enters the frame, stands by his side and offers him support. Without much fuss, the painfully authentic scene notifies the dynamics between the tow characters’ relationship. Such pared down yet acute aesthetic sense gives ‘Stronger’ a profound emotional dimension to stand out amidst numerous inspirational true-story dramas. The narrative does take few missteps, like the extended scene when strangers out-pour their love towards Jake (pulls too much at the heartstrings) or the way it offers a light-hearted finality (for the sake of pleasing the crowd). But these are very minor flaws in a film that organically produces its emotions.
In narratives like these, characters supporting the protagonist are often relegated to be ciphers rather than be fully-realized personalities. Green and Pollono don’t make that mistake with the characterization of Erin Hurley. Writer Pollono acknowledges the difficulties of romantic relationship between Erin and Jeff, giving due space to Erin’s own trauma in constantly keeping up the role of a care-giver. When these characters hit the rock bottom, Green depicts it in a raw manner, wholly trapping us in the prickling reality. This rawness combined with the lack of narrative and emotional shortcuts genuinely earns our joyful tears, later when these individuals overcome their incredible odds. Moreover, Gyllenhaal and Maslany’s powerful and textured performance keeps our eyes glued to the screen. While Gyllenhaal’s tough physical performance and measured emotional outbursts would instantly gain applauds, Maslany’s calming presence was equally cherishable.
Stronger (118 minutes) showcases how commingling of talented film-maker, writer, and performers could actually turn a remarkable ‘true story’ into a sensitive and emotionally subtle drama without adding layers of manipulative, Oscar-baiting melodrama. The final destination of ‘inspirational’ films like Stronger won’t be a big surprise, but it’s totally worthwhile to observe how it gets there.