The words “based on the inspiring true story” are cruel to put on a poster. That kind of tagline suggests a story that simply wouldn’t hold up by itself; it needs the added boost in the audience’s heart by reminding us that we can’t criticize it too badly, because that’d be insulting those involved in the real world. It’s an effective technique. In my time working at a movie theater, I noticed that was all that people said about these kinds of movies. “And it’s based on a true story!” they’d say in hushed, rapturous voices, ignoring the fact that “The Lost City of Z” was overlong and pointless.
“Stronger’s: IMDB description reads: “‘Stronger’ is the inspiring real life story of Jeff Bauman, an ordinary man who captured the hearts of his city and the world to become a symbol of hope following the infamous 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.” From reading that, you can understand the entire plot, the conflicts and the ending of the movie. No matter how good Jake Gyllenhaal is in the role of Jeff, no matter how good its director, David Gordon Green, is at his job, we still know how this movie goes.
Jeff is a double amputee and spends most of the movie legless. Even after “Forrest Gump,” I’m still in awe of movies that pull off this effect. Gyllenhaal is deeply committed, as is whatever CGI removed his legs, and the result is an incredibly convincing illusion. We see the nitty gritty of the medical techniques. The best scene of the film is a bandage change where we hear the voices of the doctors, see the process in the background and get to watch Gyllenhaal’s agonized face. The movie gets the medical scenes perfectly right, down to how the doctors talk and move. Every single scene is as harrowing as watching a loved one have the processes performed on them.
Green didn’t always make movies that felt like movies. His debut, “George Washington,” is an elegant, beautiful poem. It is a film with almost no story, which relies on the empathy of the audience to create its characters, but most importantly it captures a time, place and mood like few other movies do. Green is from Arkansas, but still I feel he could make a similar film about New England, where “Stronger” took place. One where nothing really happens but instead empty people lead their depressed lives and somehow find redemption and purpose.
There was a film like that recently, “Manchester by the Sea,” which perfectly captured the disassociation and deep sadness that lives with every New Englander so well. David O’Russell did it with “The Fighter,” Ben Affleck did it with his “Good Will Hunting” script, “Gone Baby Gone” and “The Town.” What’s important to remember is that all the films I’ve listed (save for “Manchester”) had stories that we know just as well as “Stronger.” But they captured the ennui and big family feel of New England so well that we didn’t notice. These films lived in New England, Green just feels like he’s visiting.
I must admit I did tear up at “Stronger.” I’d be a monster not to. Gyllenhaal will be nominated, maybe win the Oscar for his work here. There’s a scene where he and his girlfriend (Tatiana Maslany) fight about their future and we see shockingly intense, pure, violent emotion from both actors. She leaves him in the car, sans wheelchair, and watching him pathetically drag himself screaming through the parking, hurts. Moments like this show the raw power in this cliche story, which makes it frustrating that the whole thing isn’t on the level.
I can’t call this a good movie because it simply is too obviously a movie painfully asking us to pretend it is reality. But there are moments of real beauty and power here that should be commended. It’s a shame that they’re just moments.
Featured Photo: “Stronger” is redeemed by Jake Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Maslany’s performances as real-life couple Jeff Bauman and Erin Hurley. LIONSGATE.