Spotlight Columns

Buttered and Salty: ‘Stronger’

By From page A7 | September 20, 2017

“Stronger”
* * *
R, 1 hour, 56 minutes
Biography/Drama

“Stronger” is a good movie that can’t get out of its own way to allow itself to be a great movie.

Based on the inspiring true story of Jeff Bauman, who lost his legs in the tragic Boston Marathon bombing of 2013, “Stronger” is a film that explores the strength of the human spirit when faced with great adversity. The problem lies in that the film moves at such a quick pace to cover all the major public and personal moments in Bauman’s life during that turbulent year that it doesn’t have time to really slow down and show the truly horrible physical and psychological damage a victim of terrorism experiences.

It does come close. In one scene we are witness to doctors changing Jeff’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) bandages for the first time while his girlfriend, played by Tatiana Maslany, stays with him for support. The scene is free of disturbing images, but the performances are so good that we feel like we are in the room experiencing Bauman’s pain with him. It’s an extraordinary scene.

The picture immediately cuts to six weeks later and I sat there wanting to see what those missing weeks in the hospital entailed for Bauman and his loved ones. It must have been terrible. Undoubtedly, there was tremendous courage in that small hospital room. I guess I’ll have to read the book to find out what sadness and determination they dealt with in the immediate aftermath.

One aspect of the film that I was impressed with is how “Stronger” addresses what we as a society expect from our heroes. Does a man who was recently maimed want to be wheeled out onto the ice at an NHL hockey game or interviewed on the Today Show for the world to see, so soon after personal tragedy? Probably not. “Stronger” not only asks these questions but answers them as well. For Bauman the answer, at least in the beginning, was no.

The best stuff in this film involves the character of girlfriend Erin Hurley, played with a quiet earnestness by Maslany. Every scene she’s in elevates the film and Gyllenhaal’s character. I haven’t seen a lot of Maslany’s work up until this point, but I was incredibly impressed with her here. She is the emotional anchor of the film. I wouldn’t have cared as much without her.

High marks are also in line for supporting actor Carlos Sanz, who gives life to the real-world hero Carlos Arredondo on limited screen time. Arredondo gained national attention when he was pictured pulling Bauman from the carnage. I highly recommend researching Arredondo and the sacrifices he and his family have made for this country. The Arredondo’s heroism and activism deserve more attention.

For his part, Gyllenhaal was good but doesn’t entirely push the character to where he should have gone with this material. I can’t quite place what it was about his performance that didn’t really work for me. Perhaps it was the fact that Gyllenhaal is 10 years older than the character when these events happened. Perhaps it was the bad hair style.

Maybe it was that I’m not convinced the character actually learns anything in this story. Of course he shows what he is physically and emotionally capable of overcoming due to his injury, but at the end of the film Bauman was still making the same mistakes with the woman that he loves that he was making in the beginning of the story. We know the extraordinary courage it took to overcome his physical limitations and heal. Did he become a better partner in the process? I’m not so sure.

The direction, cinematography and score are all solid, if not memorable. The film does focus more on hitting the big beats instead of the little ones, but what really saves this picture is the wonderful performance by Maslany and an inspirational story that we as Americans can all relate to.

Joshua B. Porter is a writer/director/producer. The most recent film he produced “August Falls” is currently available on Amazon Prime as well as other streaming services. He can be reached at @joshuabporter or [email protected]

Joshua Porter

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