I am lucky to say that neither I nor anyone I know have been personally and directly affected by it. The closest that terrorism has come to touching my life was the Boston Marathon bombing, to which I felt some affinity — I have family who have run Boston in other years, and having run a marathon myself, I could keenly imagine the horror. Yet even this is not enough to claim a full understanding of the experience, a collective trauma that forces the world to shift, that can ruthlessly end or destroy or cripple whole lives beyond all reason, an act intended to reduce people’s existence to political symbols of loss or victory. All this, yes, and an individual trauma as well, for no statistic or overview of victims can explicate the full, unique impact a moment can have on a single life. It's easy to fall prey to this reduction, and it can even arise from feelings of empathy and love.
Take Jeff Bauman, whose legs were shredded from his body on that day in Boston, and who was photographed being wheeled away from the scene in that state, ashen faced and broken. The phot made a star of Bauman internationally, but particularly locally, and his survival itself became an embodiment of his city’s mantra: “Boston Strong.” He threw a pitch at a Red Sox game. He co-wrote a bestselling book about his experience. Now there is a biopic directed by David Gordon Green, Stronger, based on that book, an ostensible effort to peel away the deceptive skin of myth and celebrity to behold the humanity underneath.
Would that the filmmakers had fully thought through how and why they wanted to do this! Stronger feels, in most every respect, like a film that overlays the known facts of Bauman’s trauma and recovery on top of a conventionally satisfying dramatic structure. Jeff (Jake Gyllenhaal) has a brief stint of focused determination after the bombing, a time when he wins his ex-girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany) back over, makes a series of uncomfortably demonstrative public appearances, and charts his rehabilitative course, but he slowly sinks into self-loathing and despair. The possible reasons for this fall are alluded to — he had an unreliable streak for a long time before the bombing, he doesn't want to disappoint his family, he hates himself for being hurt when others died, he hates the world for hurting him for no reason — but are never elaborated upon or explored. Instead, they’re window dressing for a conventional comeback story, which climaxes with his pitch at the Red Sox game for seemingly no other reason than it was a pretty big, prominent event in real life.
That climax doesn't seem to tie into him resolving any personal demons. Instead, it comes as Bauman realizes that he has been a beacon of hope for others, and decides to finally fall into that role. But why? How does that connect to the other psychological issues that have seemed to bring him there? It certainly flies in the face of the film’s earlier disdain for the celebritizing of victims. The film spends so long decrying Bauman’s treatment as a political prop by the public and his family that his sudden euphoric acceptance of that persona exposes the entire movie as insincere.
There are flashes of a better version of the story here, and director David Gordon Green would have been far better off recognizing the principles of these moments and sticking to them. Most memorable is the moment when Jeff has his legs’ bandages replaced after their amputation. Green plays almost the entire scene in a single shot, with Bauman’s face in close up on the extreme right of the frame and his legs out of focus in the background as he winces and shouts through the procedure. Eventually, Erin’s face emerges on the left of the frame, turning the image from one of isolated suffering into interpersonal connection and consolation. Other scenes would have benefited from this approach; one has Bauman sitting on the toilet as his family yells at him to hurry up and join them while they watch sports. The scene cuts back and forth from the living room to the bathroom as Jeff struggles and muffles his own screams of frustration. Why cut away from the bathroom at all, when the perspective of the living room is irrelevant to the scene, and the tension and familial disconnect would have been much more acute if we watched Jeff on the toilet as we only heard his family through the door? It's a film that would seem to demand an empathetic point of view, but Green seems unaware or uninterested in maintaining a consistent perspective, even though his cast (who are faultless to the extent that the muddy script allows them to be) are more than up for the task of such scrutiny.
The formlessness of the camera positioning and cutting is an issue that runs deep in Stronger. One sequence cuts between an exchange between Bauman and Erin over dinner, where he suggests that she join him at his rehab sessions sometime. As they discuss this, the scene cuts repeatedly to a wide Jeff doing laps in a swimming pool. There’s no discernible reason for this, no parallel, no metaphor, no counterpoint. It seems to be there only to liven up the staging of the scene, but it's exactly the sort of over-compensatory approach that makes Stronger so dramatically inert.
It doesn't help that, besides an occasionally inspired frame, Green and his cinematographer Sean Bobbitt’s approach to camera coverage is thoroughly underwhelming. Their long lenses and arbitrary (frequently unattractive) scope-ratio compositions often confuse any sense of who’s looking at whom, doing what, going where. This is not the sort of camera placement that justifies breaking the axis of action, yet Green does so with the confidence of Ozu, and the results are always deleterious to scenes’ graphic and spatial integrity.
Why is the score full of plodding, on-the-nose piano? Is Erin being guilted back into her relationship, and why does the film ultimately brush this concern aside in favour of a conventional romantic coupling? How culpable are Jeff’s friends in enabling his turn to alcoholism, and why does he (and the film) so unequivocally embrace them by the end in spite of this? Why are there so many rambling conversations that reveal little more about the people having them except that they are blue-collar folks from Boston? Rising from adversity is a worthy theme in itself, to be sure, but it's not enough to gesture towards it without developing a social or psychological framework to hold it up. The film is so disconnected from whatever sense it means to make of its own subject, yet the moments of clarity or effect indicate that there is an earnestness behind Stronger, and that makes it difficult to denounce as cynical. It is merely irresponsible.