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IN BRIEF: A gritty and emotional film that couldn't ask for a stronger performance than the one given by Jake Gyllenhaal.
SYNOPSIS: A biography of Jeff Bauman, a survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing.
JIM'S REVIEW: The odds against Jeff Bauman surviving the horror of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing were slim and the chances any moviegoer won't be moved to tears and uplifted by this one man's personal tale of survival while experiencing David Gordon Green's Stronger are even less.
This heartfelt film takes on the before and after view of this common man. First seen as a hometown boy (before being cast as an hometown hero to the world), Jeff (Jake Gyllenhaal) was a fun-loving avid Boston Red Sox fan caught in an on-again / off again relationship with his girlfriend, Erin (Tatianna Maslany). He lived an ordinary life, one filled with bars, beer, and blue collar stock characters. Then came the terrorist bombing which changed everything.
The story itself is predictable and manipulative, yet emotionally gripping. John Pollono's screenplay follows the formula to the T, or should I say from Point A (the horrific event) to Point B (overcoming the obstacles and hardships) to its uplifting Point C ending (pride and redemption). That said, it all works most effectively, due its honest depiction of a man in crisis.
And having that person played by the talented Mr. Gyllenhaal, a fine method actor who immersed himself in this real life role, gives the film the honest integrity and authenticity the film needs which helps to separate the movie from most biographies that wallow in self-pity and inner strength. Watching him struggle to come to terms with his injuries and finally walk with two prosthetic legs is gut-wrenching and Mr. Gyllenhaal shows his character's human flaws and intrinsic hopes with the least amount of melodramatic excess. His performance deserves award recognition.
Where the film truly succeeds is in avoiding the clichés of most biopics by making our hero too heroic and unreal. Mr. Gordon's direction is concise and insightful. He never allows Stronger to weaken. His film doesn't flinch from the ugly side of Jeff's rehabilitation, his dysfunctional family, and his sacrifices just to lead a normal life. It wisely covers the issue of instant fame and becoming a pawn for network news, a necessary symbol of courage for a nation, even if our hero wants none of that adoration. The film does end on an inspirational false note, as most film biopics do, in a scene at the ballpark that takes a misstep into gross sentimentality and an unabashed shout-out to patriotism. But the story always remains compelling and the acting is superb.
The rest of the cast could easily have played their parts rather routinely and still bring about the emotional clout: suffering girlfriend, loyal friends, worrisome parents, etc. But the actors shy away from the obvious and give their characters some gravitas. Ms. Maslany makes a fine partner as Jeff's supporting girlfriend, showing the pain and frustration beautifully. Carlos Sanz as the man who saved Jeff's life during the bombing, has a quiet and touching scene that is so nuanced and heartbreaking in its subtlety. It shows the collective despair of survivors and their kin. Miranda Richardson, as Jeff's boozy mother, is so memorable in her supporting role that she becomes unrecognizable, creating an indelible character while exposing her human flaws. Her rivalry with Erin brings needed tension to the family dynamics which separates this film from the run-of-the-mill inspirational saga. There are many scenes of undeniable pathos and melancholy, insightful moments in time, especially the parking lot confrontation between the two leads that builds to an emotional zenith.
Stronger is a rarity, a powerful film based on a true life story that is true to life. With a strong central performance, fine direction, and a screenplay that works on many emotional levels, this is one of the year's most satisfying dramas. Do not miss it!
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