The phrase “based on a true story” can serve as a warning sign for any discerning viewer as American cinema often exploits such stories as a cheap source of inspiration or, even worse, as an easy way to gain Academy attention. It seems that every year viewers are subjected to countless examples of this dreaded subgenre, one of thoughtless filmmaking and emotional manipulation. On the surface, director David Gordon Green’s “Stronger” appears to be another one of those far-too-common eye rollers. However, the film is surprisingly rich, even though it never reaches greatness.
The year is 2013. Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an average young Bostonian — he loves his family of misfits and his local sports teams. Jeff also happens to be an ineffable screwup who can never be relied upon to show up. After leaving his job at Costco early to go watch the Boston Red Sox play, Jeff runs into his on-and-off-again girlfriend Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany) at a bar. When she says that she is raising money to run the Boston Marathon, he helps out and promises that he will be waiting for her at the finish line.
Sure enough, he’s there waiting for her. As she approaches the finish line — boom, debris flies through the air. People scream. Panic spreads like smoke. Two bombs exploded during the race. Jeff is rushed to the hospital and a photo of his rescue circulates the news cycle as surgeons perform a double above-the-knee amputation on his legs. Erin meets Jeff’s makeshift family of relatives and friends at the hospital — including his alcoholic mother and roommate Patty Bauman (Miranda Richardson). Jeff wakes up and shares his memory of the bombers as crucial evidence in the subsequent FBI investigation, instantly cementing him as a national hero.
The emotional power of “Stronger” primarily stems from its lead actors, both of whom turn in extraordinary work. Gyllenhaal gives a more nuanced performance than he is usually known for, thankfully emphasizing Jeff as a character over the physical transformation of the role. A lesser actor (and a lesser film) would have taken the easy route and put all the focus on the superficial transformation of a man who loses his legs. Rather, the film depicts the depths of the real person at the film’s center, an ordinary man thrust into the public consciousness by personal tragedy. It’s an unusually complex portrayal for a film of this type, equally plucking the strength and inherent weakness of its subject.
Maslany is perhaps even better as Erin, who is thankfully not relegated to the role of sympathetic partner. She possesses her own agency and struggles as she gives up her life to take care of her lover, and their love is one of the most thrillingly tempestuous romances seen in a real-life drama of late. Richardson also excels as Patty, the maternal force of nature at odds with both leads as they all attempt to cope with the tragedy’s aftermath.
Green deserves credit for making the film his own as well as contributing to the detailed character work. His trademark of fleshing out such details, seen his work ranging from “George Washington” to “Pineapple Express,” is on full display, as each character receives due time to develop into multi-dimensional human beings. Most fascinating is his decision to steer the film away from Jeff’s heroism. Instead, Green takes aim at the ways in which heroism is forced upon survivors by the forces of popular culture, ignoring the subtleties of their guilt and trauma. The film is admirable in a major way, even if Green doesn’t quite go as far with it as he should have.
For all its ways of standing out from the inspirational biopic crowd, the film still doesn’t completely subvert the trappings of its genre. It can’t seem to escape some of its emotional cliches nor do much else to be, altogether, memorable. The film is fairly boring on a formal and cinematic level, as is expected, with nothing particularly interesting or inventive going on in terms of how Green uses the imagistic and aural tools at his disposal. By adhering to the typical “based on a true story” formula, “Stronger” sacrifices some of its staying power.
As one of the films officially kicking off this year’s fall awards season, “Stronger” is a sensible choice. It’s as inoffensive and solid as a motion picture could be but doesn’t quite take as many risks as it should. What viewers are left with are two extraordinary performances and characters shaped by a skilled filmmaker and two highly talented actors. For a time soon to be packed with buzz-worthy films, this season doesn’t begin with a bang or with a whimper — but with a somber, personal reflection.