BFI London Film Festival: Stronger

Stronger
Stronger
Directed by David Gordon Green
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany and Miranda Richardson
Screening at LFF October 5th, 6th, 8th

by Joanna Orland

On paper, Stronger seems like perfect Oscar-bait: Based on a true story of overcoming tragedy in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, the film centres on real life “hero” Jeff Bauman. Contradictory to all expectations, Stronger is not the sappy melodrama of an American hero, but rather an exploration of what it means to be labelled a ‘hero’ when becoming a victim.

Unavoidable comparisons will be drawn to another recent Boston Marathon bombing drama Patriots Day. While both use the bombing as a backdrop, the two films couldn’t be more different. Whereas Patriots Day is a story on a grand scale, depicting multiple characters and focusing on the immediate aftermath of the attack, Stronger restrains the bombing element of the story to focus on one man and his family, and what happens many months after the tragedy, once the drama dies down.

There is a toned down realism to Stronger, which is its key to working so well as a film. The marathon scenes themselves are not overly dramatized, almost muted. It is the hospital scenes when Jeff (Gyllenhaal) wakes with his legs amputated that has the intensity. Naturalistic acting, dialogue and lingering scenes give the feel of a fly on the wall look into Jeff’s recovery. His vulnerability and honesty is refreshing to see amongst what would normally be such theatrical patriotic fare. Labelled an “American hero”, Jeff is anything but.

An iconic photo of Jeff and his rescuer went viral after the bombings, making Jeff a symbol of ‘Boston Strong’, the movement that arose in Boston as a stand against terrorism. Gifts, cards, visits, photo ops, interviews: Jeff was immediately bombarded with an outpouring of adoration, for something that he wishes had never happened. He isn’t given a chance to recover physically or mentally, suffers from PTSD, is in a lot of pain, and is self-destructing rather than getting on the road to rehabilitation. Director David Gordon Green isn’t afraid to show the darker side of Jeff; drunk in a bathtub covered in his own feces and all. He humanizes Jeff, as Jeff lashes out against any claim of heroism.

Jake Gyllenhaal gives a wonderfully layered performance as Jeff, using humour as well as drama to portray his pain. But, the greatest achievement of this film is its casting of Tatiana Maslany – in a role that will show off her talents to a wider audience than cult hit Orphan Black. She is even better on the big screen than the small one, and I for one am excited for her career post Clone Club.

Underused is Carlos Sanz as Jeff’s rescuer Carlos Arredondo. The story of Carlos is actually much more fascinating than Jeff’s, and is only touched upon in Stronger by a brief, yet poignant, exchange between the men. Reading Carlos’ real biography and the events in his life that led to the moment of him being at the Boston Marathon are tragically fascinating, and a whole other movie unto itself. I can see why it was too grand of a subject to tackle in a movie that is already so rich with humanity.

Stronger is better for not being the positive movie you’d expect it to be. It is let down by the clich├ęd sappy ending and the inevitable real life pre-credit photos, but its exploration of PTSD and heroism is very maturely done.



 

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