Between George Washington and Snow Angels, David Gordon Green established himself as one of the most promising filmmakers the indie scene had to offer. He took his career in a different direction with 2008’s Pineapple Express, but that comedy turned out to be an instant stoner classic. Just when it looked like this versatile director could do no wrong, though, he gave us Your Highness and The Sitter. Much like John Hughes towards the end of his career, Green seemed to get lost in a vast sea of poor slapstick and toilet humor. Green has been showing a return to form as of late, however, and Stronger is perhaps his most involving film to date.
Although it was only a few years ago, we’ve already gotten a couple movies about the Boston Marathon bombing. Patriots’ Day earned wide praise last year and Stronger is another respectable depiction of the tragedy that occurred on April 15, 2013. Green’s film doesn’t shy away from gut-wrenching, claustrophobic moments that key in on the vulnerability of our main characters. On the whole, however, Green has made a life-affirming and occasionally even humorous film that captures humanity at its most inspiring.
Green gets universally stellar performances from his cast, particularly Jake Gyllenhaal as Jeff Bauman. Overflowing with charisma and charm, Jeff never fails to light up every room he enters. He’s been in an on-again, off-again relationship with a woman named Erin Hurley, wonderfully played by Tatiana Maslany in a Best Supporting Actress caliber performance. Jeff decides to cheer his sort-of girlfriend on while she runs the Boston Marathon. When the bombs go off, Jeff loses both of his legs in the blast. Even in the wake of this tragedy, though, Jeff’s initial instincts are to a) make a Lt. Dan joke and b) alert the FBI about the bomber he spotted.
Gyllenhaal, Green, and screenwriter John Pollono do a terrific job at bringing out Jeff’s optimism and sense of humor, despite his unspeakable circumstances. Behind all the jokes and the strong front he puts up, though, Jeff is overcome with grief. The scenes involving Jeff’s physical struggles are handled with raw honesty. Yet, it’s the emotional hurdles that Jeff must leap over that really hit us hard. As people come to view Jeff as an American hero, his newfound fame becomes more than he can handle. When Jeff makes an appearance at a hockey stadium, the audience can literally feel every eye on him. Matters at home also prove exceedingly difficult, as Erin and Jeff’s mother (Miranda Richardson) clash over what’s best for the most important man in their lives.
Casting is a crucial element in a biopic like this and the actors here all hit pitch perfect notes. There’s actually been some controversy over the role of Jeff going to Gyllenhaal instead of somebody that’s actually a double amputee. You could argue that this would’ve added another layer of authenticity to the film, but it’s hard to image another actor turning in a performance as genuine as Gyllenhaal’s. Green gives Gyllenhaal numerous balls to juggle as Jeff, from heartbreak, to uncertainty, to fear, to courage, to optimism. Nevertheless, Gyllenhaal never misses a beat in a film that finds an actor and director at their absolute best.