One group that Hollywood still has a ways to go in terms of having authentic representation is the disabled community. More often than not a character with a disability of some kind be it lost limbs, some kind of illness, or whatever is only ever given the narrative of being nothing but a source of inspiration to the able-bodied folks around them (and in the audience) as they work through the difficulties of their new life and manage to find something resembling normalcy despite the odds being stacked against them. It’s a tired narrative, and one that storytellers should learn to move past.
Which leads to some good news and bad news regarding Stronger, the latest from director, David Gordon Green, and writer, John Pollono, which tells the true story of Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), a guy who lost his legs in the Boston marathon bombing back in 2013 and later became a symbol for the city as “Boston Strong” served as the slogan for countless people in the wake of tragedy.
The good news is Stronger does attempt to bring something interesting to the table. It comments on the way imperfect people are often forced into hero narratives after a tragic event, and how that could potentially end up doing more harm than good to their psyche. It’s really more a film about PTSD than it is about overcoming a disability. Think the sly satire of something like Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.
The bad news, however, is even with the attempts at saying something interesting with its otherwise familiar story, it still turns out to be rather thin. The moments where it showcases they try to show the struggles that comes when a flawed individual is propped on a pedestal are too few and far between, and by the time we get into the final moments in the film, it essentially forgets this element of the story. That goes with the PTSD aspect, which – again – is touched upon a handful of times, but is never given any kind of closure. Jeff’s arc is nonexistent, which certainly is appropriate because PTSD is something that doesn’t come and go so cleanly, but once the film comes to a close, it practically ends on a shrug. Maybe it wants us to feel good with the little victories of life, but at the same time, it offers nothing remotely insightful to earn a response. Emotionally, it all feels so oddly cold, and as raw and honest it may look and feel, it just seems like it’s checking off each and every beat out of a checklist for every inspiration feel good movie you’ve ever seen.
These frustrations are ever present, but at the very least, the material is elevated by a rock solid cast. Jake Gyllenhaal is great, with some of his most powerful moments being in the quiet looks that he’ll give to people, utilizing those really expressive eyes. Tatiana Maslany makes the best out of a rather thankless role as Jeff’s frustrated on-and-off girlfriend. They do their best to convey this long history between the two characters even though we never really see all that much, and while the script may fall short of delivering anything with depth in their relationship, the performances make it believable. The supporting cast, which includes the likes of Miranda Richardson, Richard Lane Jr., Nate Richman, Lenny Clarke, Patty O’Neil, Kate Fitzgerald, and a totally underutilized Clancy Brown, are all really good. David Gordon Green has always had a very humanist approach to his stories, and the way he handles his actors, and that aspect of his direction shines here. And his work with cinematographer, Sean Bobbitt, is very well done here at times. Certain sequences are harrowing and affecting and gorgeously composed.
I wish I had more to say about Stronger, but there isn’t much else to it. You know the kind of movie you’re watching within mere minutes into it, and while it may occasionally hint that it has something interesting to say, it ultimately won’t do much of anything to steer out of the same kind of inspiring true story movie you’ve seen a million times before, even if its disability narrative is handled better than expected. It’s not a work of cynical awards bait, it is far more sincere than that. It’s not even a bad movie, but it is a dull, bland and uninteresting one. Some really good performances, and a handful of beautifully directed sequences aside, there isn’t anything about this that you’ll likely remember a couple weeks after seeing it.
Still a hell of a lot better than Patriots Day, though.