365 Movies By Day Reviews of Movies I Watch that I Feel Like Writing About

7Jan/180

Stronger (2017)

Jake Gyllenhaal (Life, Everest) continues to take on roles that, seemingly, are each more challenging than his previous. In terms of how Academy Awards, I'm not sure if there is another actor under 50 years of age who has been snubbed as frequently as Gyllenhaal. To date, his only nomination is for 2005's Brokeback Mountain. However, I truly feel that he has been the odd man out with a number of other roles, most notably in Southpaw and, particularly, Nightcrawler. While I would put his performance in David Gordon Green's (All the Real Girls, Undertow) Stronger as one of his top six performances of all-time, I'm not sure it's in his top three or four. While he was absolutely terrific, this movie did not captivate me in the same way that movies like Brokeback Mountain, Nightcrawler, Southpaw, Nocturnal Animals, Life, Love and Other Drugs, or Brothers did. But it should have. This was based on a true story. It had the sentimentality about an average person overcoming odds and becoming a symbol for patriotism all wrapped into one. And while this movie was very good, it wasn't even Gyllenhaal's best performance about a character overcoming adversity. That belongs to Southpaw. But just because the movie wasn't amazing, doesn't mean that it was not very good. Because it was.

While not all will agree, this is a relationship movie more than it is a movie about a character overcoming a life-altering event. I think that is what separates this movie from many others of its ilk. This was actually the second movie in nine months related to the bombing at the 2013 Boston Marathon. 2016's Patriots Day had many fabricated elements around the days surrounding this horrific event. Heck, even the main character was fictionalized version of a variety of different real-life people who emerged as heroes. Patriots Day was very good and I probably enjoyed it better as a movie more than I did Stronger, there is something to be said for movie's that follow true events closer to a T than another movie does. And while Mark Wahlberg gave one of his best performances as the lead in Patriots Day, Gyllenhaal portrayed an actual person.

If you don't know the story of Jeff Bauman (Gyllenhaal), a man who had his legs amputated after being hit by the first bomb at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon where he was cheering on his, on again/off again, girlfriend Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany - The Vow, The Other Half). What made Jeff a national hero was that he was able to identify the bomber and was able to convey this message right when he woke up from his double, above the knee, leg amputations. His description of the bomber led to the eventual capture of the terrorist and made Jeff, not only a nationally recognized name but become associated with the phrase "Boston Proud". A reluctant hero who believed he was nothing more than a guy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time but happened to see something that others didn't see, Jeff had to not only deal with the depression and reality that comes with losing two of your limbs, but also a national media wanting to interview him at every turn.

Unable to deal with this situation alone, Jeff enlists the help of Erin, a woman who obviously loves him (and he of her), but who has broken up with Jeff on multiple occasions because of his inability to follow through on promises he makes to her. In his effort to win her back, Jeff attempts to rectify the reasons Erin has repeatedly broken up with her in the past (mainly because he fails to live up to his commitments) by making a sign and cheering her on at the finish line. Erin does not believe that Jeff will actually honor this promise and only learns he has when he sees him being wheeled off without his legs while watching him on the news from a local tavern phone where she is trying to find a way to get herself back home.

The two rekindle their relationship and this is really what the story is about. Jeff has to learn how to deal with this life-changing condition as does Erin. Erin moves into the apartment with Jeff and his mother. They live on the second floor so you can imagine the difficulty with that. And, of course, Jeff drifts into depression and Erin isn't automatically built in with the necessary skills to help him. He's messy. She's messy. Their relationship is messy. And it's hard to sometimes see if they are actually committed to each other or if she just needs him and she doesn't know how to say no to him. Stronger is a relationship story, but it is not a love story, at least in the traditional sense of the word. What is obvious is that the two leads are excellent at bringing out the wounded emotions that each of their real-life characters plays.

Also involved in Jeff's recovery are his mother Patty (Miranda Richardson - Damage, Tom and Viv) and father Jeff Sr. (Clancy Brown -Thor: Ragnarok, The Express) as our other family members and friends. But living through something so traumatic can be just as difficult for the parents and it can for the person who actually suffered the ordeal. And, honestly, sometimes the only love that I think you are able to accept is from someone who isn't required to give it to you...and I don't think the situation has to even be drastic for that to be true. By that I mean, sometimes it can be hard to accept love from your mother or father because they are, for lack of a better term, "required" to love you. It is a lifelong duty of theirs by bringing you into this world. Now, I understand that when someone says that they would be lucky to have a mother and father to love them until old age through circumstances large and small. And I'm not taking that for granted at all. I do feel lucky that I have this much-needed support in my life. But sometimes you just need more. Sometimes you just need someone to be there who doesn't "have" to be there. Maybe that's a really great friend or maybe that's, in Jeff's case, a romantic partner. You just sometimes need that other person who you can trust fully and who will be there for you. Whoever it is, I think can help make life manageable when it seems like it is completely unmanageable.

What's great about Jeff's story, at least from the perspective of Stronger, is that it's not all glitz, glamour, and over-dramatization. While a national story, we still get the behind the scenes story that we really need and crave. In a small way, it's as if we are in the hospital with him when his dressings are taken off for the first time. Through Gyllenhaal, we see squirm in our seats while looking away from the scars just as he does. We see the casts that are made for each legs. We see how hard it is from him to go from his wheelchair to his bathtub, or from one flight of steps to another. It all feels very real and human and tempered.

Gyllenhaal still only has that one Oscar nomination (2005's Brokeback Mountain) and that was in a supporting role. I truly believe that if there were seven nominations each year rather than five, Gyllenhaal would have at least five nominations by now. With that said, to be selected as one of just five finalists is a huge deal and I believe that his performance in Stronger earns him a nomination. I think it'll be the only Oscar nomination that this movie receives. It's a good movie for sure. Just not a great one.

Plot 8.5/10
Character Development 8.5/10
Character Chemistry 8.5/10
Acting 8.5/10
Screenplay 8.5/10
Directing 9/10
Cinematography 9/10
Sound 8/10
Hook and Reel 9/10
Universal Relevance 9/10
86.5%

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