From the outside, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Stronger was the typical awards baiting disability drama - an effort so cynical even Oscar voters saw through it when it came down to the nominations period. After all, it has all the expected elements; it’s based on a true story, and features a non-disabled actor long overdue award recognition consigning himself to a performance that’s physically restrictive. Mercifully, Stronger is far from being the tepid awards bait you’d assume. Director David Gordon Green’s film is largely unconcerned with the act of terrorism that led to his protagonist’s disability, and isn’t overly reliant on using his physical restrictions as a source of drama either.
Instead, Stronger is a far more interesting film that doesn’t quite coalesce into a coherent narrative, with its weightier themes never fully making for easy bedfellows with the surprisingly small stakes at the heart of the story. Gordon Green’s film offers commentary on PTSD and the obsession with people who survive disasters amongst the media and the general public, all while the narrative focus remains tightly on one man’s journey to become a reliable partner to his on-off girlfriend. The dramatic tension from the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings takes place on TV sets being watched next door to where the actual drama is happening - everybody in the city obsessed with the search for justice, with the exception of the man most affected by it.
Within the film’s first ten minutes, we are introduced to Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his former girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany). Jeff is famously unreliable, but promises to wait at the finishing line of the marathon later in the week, so he can cheer her on as she passes. Then, the bombing happens and Jeff is left without legs - and we’ve barely passed the ten minute mark of the film. Waking up in hospital, Jeff remains in warm comic spirits and even manages to identify the bomber when quizzed by authorities, establishing his new status as a local hero.
His mother (Miranda Richardson) aims to capitalise on his newfound fame by booking him interviews and public appearances left, right and centre - but Erin, now back in his life as his girlfriend, can see the toll this is taking on him. Descending into alcoholism and increasingly rejecting his public persona and personal relationships, Jeff quickly finds that there are bigger hurdles for him to overcome than his disability.
It’s a relief that Gordon Green’s film shows no interest in rehashing the clichés you’d expect from an inspirational disability drama, revolving around an emotional crisis that’s relatable without being in the midst of a terrorist attack. But it’s in the juxtaposition between the small scale relationship drama and the large scale condemnation of the media’s insatiable appetite for victims of terrorism to become public figures overnight where the film falters. On their own terms, both of these elements work effectively; the criticisms of the general public’s adulation of heroes, refusing to give them a moment’s peace after unspeakable tragedy, are incredibly effective.
Even once the initial PTSD wears off, the horror remains; mere weeks after the incident, Jeff finds himself confronted at a bar by a guy claiming that the terrorist attack was just a “false flag” incident so Obama could cause destruction in the Middle East. It is in these moments, Tatiana Maslany’s character effectively gets sidelined - and it means the emotional heart of the story feels less powerful as a result. The audience does get to see the trauma ringing around Jeff’s head, perfectly visualised by a typically terrific Gyllenhaal performance. The only problem is we very rarely get to see inside his heart, leading to a film that’s emotionally powerful but never as truly captivating as it could be.
BONUS FEATURES: The DVD comes with only one bonus feature, a 30 minute featurette on the making of the film. Skip past the introductory puff piece interview segments with the cast and crew, and there are interesting behind the scenes details here; from utilising real Boston locations, to cinematographer Sean Bobbitt’s method of making the film feel documentary adjacent, it’s proof that the film was made as a tribute to the city of Boston as much as the real Jeff Bauman.