Overview: A victim of the Boston Marathon bombing’s photographed image becomes a source of hope for his city and country while his personal life becomes increasingly fraught with anguish from his trauma. Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions; 2017; 119 Minutes.
Phantasmagoria: Since he passed away earlier this month, I’ve been thinking a lot about something legendary actor Harry Dean Stanton told The Observer in an interview in 2013: “In the end, you end up accepting everything in your life—suffering, horror, love, loss, hate—all of it. It’s all a movie anyway.” Life, he explained, was “one big phantasmagoria.”
Strange, then, that the first two movies I caught at the theater since this quote lodged into my mind are Aronofsky’s Mother!, whose beautiful resolution lends to the same conclusion as Stanton’s musings on a divine and historical scale, and David Gordon Green’s Stronger, a film which investigates the notion from a hyper-personal angle using the vehicle of the real-life story of Jeff Bauman, the victim of the Boston Marathon bombing who was photographed in the aftermath with his legs missing as he was pushed in a wheelchair by a man in a cowboy hat. This image became the psychologically protective cover photo of the bombing and was symbolically repurposed by the American media and Bostonians so that the conclusion of the terrorist act could say more about the togetherness of our nation’s people and the resilient toughness of the city’s strongest citizens. But Green’s film is less interested in the real-life moment’s functioning as a symbol as he is in the actual real life of Jeff Bauman, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, and his family and romantic partner having to function during, after, and in spite of his having been made into a symbol.
This creates two unexpected lines of inquiry, each of which proves greater value than the more expected inspirational drama or terrorist-hunting procedural film: one, Stronger operates as an earnest, vulnerable, and humanizing look at an individual at whom our reductive symbol-seeking modern media might not have looked twice. But also, Stronger is a movie that nudges an investigation into a symbol-obsessed brand of nationalism that stretches over the American culture.
It’s All A Movie Anyway: But Green creates these unexpected essay spaces with a focus that wanders freely toward and away from Bauman. To accentuate his newest film’s concrete thematic purposes, Green employs the poetic exploration that defined his earlier, more celebrated and abstract films (George Washington, Undertow, All the Real Girls, etc.), driving with untethered human curiosity and sympathy through an expansive cast of characters. Namely, there’s an almost oppressive empathy applied to the treatment of Erin, the ex-girlfriend Jeff attended the marathon to support, played by Tatiana Maslany, who, in a just and attentive awards circuit should be a shoe-in for Supporting Actress nominations. The film accepts the reading that Erin reunites with Jeff after the tragedy as an expression of guilt or confused duty, and it passes no judgment for this. Life is, after all, too complex to perceive relationships, even standard relationships really, in simple terms. That Green can allow that interpretation without it swelling in obstruction of his film is a testament to his uncanny ability to present a straight line film within incalculable layers of truth.
Likewise, Jeff’s extended New England family, anchored by his mother Patty (Miranda Richardson) and his dad Big Jeff (Clancy Brown), add complicated humanism and even social commentary to each scene. The Bauman collective is earnestly and gratingly Boston. They are are ever-present, always talking over one another, constantly protective of Jeff and oblivious to the depth of his situation. In this way, they become a stand-in for the city itself. They are salt-of-the-Earth, blue collar strugglers, folks so accustomed to being disappointed and unassisted (even their cherished sports team’s 21st Century success can not be understood without also understanding the prior century of shortcoming) that they cannot accept or expect good news. When Jeff’s Costco Manager Kevin (Danny McCarthy) arrives with Jeff’s insurance preparation and good advice, the entire room expects that he’s a sneaky reporter looking to trick them. These are the people expected to build a more hopeful narrative out of tragedy, to step forward in symbolic defense against terrorist attack in protection of an American way of life that hasn’t always been good to them.
Accepting It All: But in the end, this is Jeff Bauman’s story, in a way that no other telling would dare allow. In fact, Green’s film and Gyllenhaal’s predictably powerful performance are both quick to remind the audience of just how readily Bauman’s narrative is borrowed, not just on a large scale cultural measure, but an interpersonal one. When the entire city cheers Jeff’s appearance at a Bruins playoff game, Jeff struggles through a PTSD-sparked panic attack in an elevator just after. When Jeff first arrives home from the hospital, he bloodies his nose by falling off his bed behind a closed door, and his aunt convinces his mother that he’s enjoying a moment of masturbatory self-pleasure. And when his relationship with Erin hits its most dire stretch anf his mother attempts to reassert her motherhood over his life by forcibly inserting herself into a caretaker position for which she (and really, any single individual) is under-equipped, a night of innocent drinking ends with Jeff passed out in a tub, covered in his own feces and vomit, a detail only useful in a story pursuant of hard-lined truth.
The title Stronger has to be interpreted against its relationship with the slogan “Boston strong,” the phrase repeated in the weeks following the bombing. But the question remains: who is stronger than whom? One could say that the title references the city’s ability to persevere against its attackers. Or perhaps Stronger explores the Bauman family’s collective strength or Erin’s resolute strength in pushing Jeff to move forward, to become a better partner and presumably a dad. But, given the width and breadth of the film’s attention, one has to think it’s more than that.
Overall: With Stronger, David Gordon Green, with the help of impacting performances, has authored a testimony to human strength, but not in any generic symbolic sense or in any way that lends itself to cheap patriotic interpretation. Stronger is a film about the strength of the individual human spirit and its ability to deal with the complexities of life, the nuanced complications and countless obstacles lost in any effort to build a narrative from real events.