TIFF 2017 Review: STRONGER Runs To The Finish

David Gordon Green crafts an exemplary character piece about the effects of the Boston Marathon Bombing.

Stronger isn’t the first Boston Marathon Bombing film, and knowing how these stories tend to get mythologized it’s unlikely to be the last. Yet to its credit the film has far less to do with the specifics of one event and instead focuses on a far more universal message of recovery, self-doubt and the reconciliation and acceptance required to overcome any personal loss.

Where Peter Berg’s Patriot’s Day took the action movie tack, focussing on law enforcement and an admittedly ridiculous compound character played by Mark Wahlberg, here the focus is very much on a single individual’s own response to the events and how they both physically and spiritually shaped him afterward. Jeff Bauman, a Costco employee, decided to go support his on-again, off-again girlfriend as she crossed the finish line. When the pressure cooker bombs went off his legs were severed, thus starting a rehabilitation of his body while being thrust into the public eye.

It’s the dynamic between the intensely public view of Bauman and his own private struggles that makes the film the most interesting. Director David Gordon Green has long been brilliant at drawing out complex performances, and with lead Jake Gyllenhaal he’s got the perfect person for the role. Gyllenhaal's wild rage and believable sensitivity is amped up here, completely convincing in one of his best roles. For those like this author unschooled in the TV show, Orphan Black co-star Tatiana Maslany is a revelation, surpassing any of her previous cinema roles with a wonderfully nuanced take as Jake’s partner.

There’s a slew of cantankerous Bostonians providing excellent local colour, including a delicious role for Clancy Brown as “Big Jeff”, the always stalwart Lenny Clarke as “Uncle Bob” and an electric take by an inspired choice in Miranda Richardson.

Writer John Pollono’s credits are mostly in television, yet his distillation of the events and richly drawn characters are satisfyingly cinematic. Boston feels very much a part of the character of the film, and at least from the outside it has a welcome authenticity that may not be as flashy as, say, The Fighter or The Town, but maybe even more effective because of that. The film is smart to both celebrate the concept of “Boston Strong” and question what goes beyond the slogan, and thanks to Green’s deft eye and sensitivity to character beats it all accumulates into a moving, effective piece that refuses to make empty heroes of its protagonists.

Yes, the story very much follows a predictable line, yet there are enough flaws exhibited and bumps along the way to keep things far more interesting than may be expected. Bauman’s a bit of an asshole, even before the incident, and the film is unafraid to show real human foibles at play. This is what elevates the film tremendously, and it is thanks to Gyllenhaal’s ability to tow this line, to reach rock bottom only to still believable climb up, that Stronger succeeds.

The tragedy of that day has been repeated all over the world, and it’s easy for the USA to focus on its own losses and make them more grandiose because of the focus. The fact that Green’s film touches upon this dynamic, showing the dichotomous nature of fame in the face of such an event, makes the work far more than a mere Boston Bombing film. Stronger is stronger because it’s at its core a truly human story, not focusing on the specific event but delving into universal qualities that affect all of us. With excellent performances, a tight script and intelligent direction, there’s plenty to admire about the film just as there’s plenty to applaud its subject matter for the tenacity and courage displayed.