We don't appreciate Jake Gyllenhaal enough. Somewhere around 2012's End of Watch, Gyllenhaal started becoming one of those chameleonic character actors who accepted challenging roles in hard-to-peg features (Prisoners, Nightcrawler, Demolition, Nocturnal Animals) and knocked each performance out of the park with impressive consistency. More so, Gyllenhaal made these roles look easy, when in reality they were anything but. A fascinating performer who already had movies like Zodiac, Brokeback Mountain and Donnie Darko under his belt was pushing the envelope of what he could attempt, and accomplish, on screen... and his astonishing development as an iconic screen actor has been a riveting joy to watch.
Too often, though, Gyllenhaal can come off as the best part of an average movie, a highlight in a story that lets down his individual efforts. With Stronger, that's completely not the case, as every facet of this powerful, difficult but uplifting biopic -- from the screenplay to the intimate direction to the incredible supporting cast -- meets Gyllenhaal's remarkable physical and emotional determinations head on, creating an unforgettable portrayal of strength and perseverance in the aftermath of a national tragedy. Stronger is one of the best movies of the year.
Jeff Bauman (Gyllenhaal) was standing at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, holding a sign congratulating his girlfriend Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany), when two bombers triggered explosive devices on April 15, 2013. As a result, Jeff lost everything from just above his knees down, effectively changing -- in the blink of an eye -- the life of this innocent man, and the lives of every person in his orbit. There is recovery. There is rehabilitation. And there is the painful realization that this is now Jeff's new reality, an incredibly shitty hand that can marginally improve over time but won't ever heal or completely go away.
Frequently, when Hollywood attempts to convey the "true life story" of a tragic event, we (as critics) bemoan the tired and clichéd approach that can lead to a stylish and polished but hollow telling of an important story. We wonder why filmmakers can't embrace the uncomfortable to make more realistic stories about horrifying circumstances that are ripped from the headlines. Well, Stronger is that type of story. Riding on the coattails of Jake Gyllenhaal's Herculean commitment, Stronger accurately portrays the struggles that Jeff Bauman endured to come back from the Boston Marathon attack, and wears on its sleeve the immense pressure felt by his friends, family and lover to be supportive, even when the odds seemed grim.
Adding another layer to Jeff's impossible struggle is the unexpected scrutiny placed in him by the rallying cry that became "Boston Strong," and the way that Stronger examines those consequences helps elevate it above its likeminded hero-celebrating fare. John Pollono's Stronger script is steeped in local Boston flavor -- a mix of roll-off-the-tongue curse words and lopsided praise on the city's pro sports teams. Jeff becomes a face for this movement, a survivor who never asked for the attention or accolades... and a man who often doesn't feel like he's "Boston Strong" at all. It's a brave decision, to zero in on the implications felt by one man being cheered by countless strangers, but it keeps a gut-wrenching focus on Jeff's various emotions and helps us feel his every frustration, anger, and candidly dark humor (but never, ever pity).
Jake Gyllenhaal is incredible in the role of Jeff Bauman, an unassuming guy who happened to be in the proverbial wrong place at the wrong time, and paid a devastating price for a stupid twist of fate. Beyond the physical commitment to convey the loss of Jeff's legs (and director David Gordon Green uses impressive tech to hide the actor's legs in pivotal scenes), Gyllenhaal dials into the emotional turmoil that accompanies Bauman's journey, from being an unwanted hero to assuming the role of healing soundboard for the many in our country whose lives have been altered by terrorist activities.
It's not all Jake's show, though, as Stronger gives ample time to the challenges presented to Erin (Maslany) and Jeff's family in the aftermath of the tragedy. Few biopics truly embrace the grey-area complications that come with hero worship in the wake of a national attack, and Stronger earns its sentiment by spotlighting a fully realized person trapped in the eye of a "patriotic" storm they didn't sign up for.
Stronger is a remarkable, emotional film. It tells an unforgettable story of strength, fortitude, perseverance and love, but it doesn't shy away from the painful realities that surround any such journey. It tackles an uplifting and complicated real-life tale with docu-drama intensity and admirable honesty, bolstered by spectacular performances by its two leads. A tough story worth telling, Stronger should be seen by everyone, so go.
Sean O’Connell is a journalist and CinemaBlend’s Managing Editor. Having been with the site since 2011, Sean interviewed myriad directors, actors and producers, and created ReelBlend, which he proudly cohosts with Jake Hamilton and Kevin McCarthy. And he's the author of RELEASE THE SNYDER CUT, the Spider-Man history book WITH GREAT POWER, and an upcoming book about Bruce Willis.