Editor’s Note: Stronger is currently playing in wide theatrical release.
On the surface, Stronger comes from the traditional mold of the hero’s narrative: a noble protagonist suffers through unspeakable tragedy but finds the will to rise up into previously unknown greatness. But this true-life story accomplishes its own heroic undertaking: calling bullshit on its own familiar formula, spinning the material from an entirely different perspective, and delivering a story of human resilience that examines the humanity as acutely as it celebrates the resilience.
Stronger eschews forced sentimentality, shining a light on the humanity that is often hidden amid the togetherness, daring to venture to the ugly depths that must be navigated before reaching the highest peaks.
Unity in the wake of crisis is not a uniquely American ideal. The “uniquely American” part is the commodification of said unity, a sort-of forced reverence that requires every citizen to stand in lockstep, lest we let our adversary “win.” No room to question, no room for dissent. There is only a celebratory togetherness or a symbolic surrender to the opposition. Lost in this reactionary jingoism are the actual victims of these tragedies, the human stories that toil on invisibly, disguised by the banners that wave forcefully in the foreground as evidence of our unity. That very lofty critique seems an odd theme for an ostensibly inspiration story like the one at the center of Stronger, doesn’t it? But therein lies its brilliance: this is an inspirational film that gives side-eye to traditional inspirational narratives. There is a staged defiance in so many would-be stirring heroic tales, a presentation designed to make the audience feel warm and comfy while ignoring the nitty-gritty of what it takes for a victim to truly overcome his or her torment. Stronger eschews that forced sentimentality, shining a light on the humanity that is often hidden amid the togetherness, daring to venture to the ugly depths that must be navigated before reaching the highest peaks.
At first glance, Jeff Bauman’s story would seem neither hidden nor ugly. His was among the most visible images in the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 – the stunned leg-less man being wheeled to safety by the heroic Samaritan in the cowboy hat. Soon after, he became a hero for his eye-witness description of the bombers and eventually a celebrated symbol of the human spirit as he forged on in recovery, the embodiment of “Boston Strong.” But that very familiar colloquialism became a source of enmity for Bauman, who wasn’t prepared to be thrust into the spotlight as a symbol of hope for others. It also is a target of the film, which is salient in its critique of recovery-as-spectacle. These banner-and-slogan campaigns, however well-intentioned, foster an “us versus them” mentality and put collectivism over the individual. Whatever pacifies the broader populace suffices over a more acute focus on the plights of survivors.
Stronger is only political to the point that it resents explicit politicization.
Of course, all my pontificating belies the fact that Stronger is only political to the point that it resents explicit politicization. In truth, this is one of the most humane stories of post-tragedy resilience that I’ve ever seen, unflinching in its depiction of both physical and emotional struggle and unwavering in its willingness to hold its hero accountable. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Baumer as wholly likeable but entirely unreliable, endlessly loyal in creed but completely selfish in action. His most crushing irony is that the one time he decided to show up – to support his estranged girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany) at the finish line of the Boston Marathon – resulted in the loss of both his legs. In public, he’s thrust into the role of Hero Survivor; in private, he dives headfirst back into a relationship with Erin. But no one, least of all Jeff himself, can anticipate the depth of his residual pain and guilt.
Yes, guilt. Jeff is thoroughly aware of his own shortcomings, and becomes increasingly plagued by the fact that he survived while so many other presumably “more deserving” victims did not. It’s yet another unexpectedly dark corridor in Stronger, and one that director David Gordon Green probes with cutting severity, as unflinching in his depiction of mental and emotional savagery as he is brutal physical wounds. “Recovery” is a notion too often relegated to a physical interpretation. What Green – a filmmaker of stunning and sometimes curious versatility, building a filmography from haunting Deep South tone poems to broad mainstream comedy but always maintaining his own independent verve – manages to accomplish is a more appropriately inclusive definition of the word, finding the most subtly profound cinematic presentation of the recovery process as it encompasses the entirety of a person’s being. Through the graphic removal of limbs to a gradual erosion of the psyche and a withering attempt to reclaim a soul, Stronger treats the deterioration and restitution of humanity as more than a conceptual symbol for which audiences can safely stand and cheer, but as a potent onslaught of reflection and reconciliation that we must feel and surmount before the titular adjective can ever be invoked.
In Stronger, David Gordon Green manages to accomplish a more appropriately inclusive definition of the word, finding the most subtly profound cinematic presentation of the recovery process as it encompasses the entirety of a person’s being.