STRONGER (2017) – Gripping Tale Is Incredibly Fresh and Honest

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I often have pre-conceived notions about movies.  So, when I hear that a film tells an inspiring story about a real life hero, I have an idea as to what that movie is going to be like.

Sometimes I’m wrong.

Such is the case with STRONGER (2017),  which tells the true story of Jeff Bauman, the man who lost his legs in the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 and later became a symbol of hope for an entire city as he fought back to regain both his life and his ability to walk.

I expected it to be good, but STRONGER is better than all of my pre-conceived notions about it.

Why?  For one thing, Jeff Bauman had no interest in being a model of hope to an entire city.  He had no interest in getting his life back, mostly because he saw himself as a loser. So, when these things ultimately happen, they’re not just examples of teary-eyed sentimental storytelling.  The story here is real, gripping, and incredibly fresh and honest.  Jeff Bauman doesn’t just rise up and decide to become an inspirational human being.  If anything, he pushes back against the notion. His is a truly heroic journey, one that takes him down into the depths of despair and darkness before he ultimately rebounds and climbs his way back to the road to humanity.

Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) is at the finish line at the Boston Marathon to cheer on his girlfriend Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany) who’s running in the race that day.  Jeff and Erin are in an on-again off-again romance, which lately had been off-again.  The irony of Jeff’s being at the finish line that day is that he is notorious for not showing up or being where he is supposed to be, which is why Erin continually gets frustrated with him.  But on this day, Jeff shows up, and he’s there at the finish line when the bombs go off.

The film kicks into high gear when Jeff’s extended family arrives at the hospital. This is not a scene where there is a group of folks sitting and sobbing, while sad music plays in the background.  No, the minute we see these people they are shouting and arguing and hurling accusations like it’s nobody’s business. It’s a refreshingly honest scene showing people who are scared and angry that their son has had his legs blown off by a terrorist on their home turf in Boston.

In fact, this is one of the best parts of the movie, the dynamic of Jeff’s family.  They are a dysfunctional group, but they always have Jeff’s back, and he swears by them, at one point saying after cussing them out that he still wouldn’t trade them for anything.  They are exactly the way many families are:  flawed but united.

Jeff returns home to the small apartment he shares with his mother Patty (Miranda Richardson), who spends most of her time drunk or hung over.  Jeff soon asks Erin to move in with him, and she does, which is a good thing because he needs her help to recover.

But Jeff is struggling with everything.  Everyone keeps reminding him what a big hero and inspiration he is, but he can’t see it.  He still drinks way too much and slowly begins to distance himself from Erin once more.

It’s not until he finally agrees to meet with the man who saved him, the man in the cowboy hat, Carlos (Carlos Sanz), that things change.  Up until that moment, Jeff had only been able to see things through his own eyes, but when he hears Carlos’ story and learns the reason Carlos was there that day in the first place, and what it meant to Carlos to save him, Jeff’s eyes are opened.  It’s a telling moment in the film, a reminder that all too often we only see things through our own prisms and perspectives, and we forget that others we interact with have their own issues and agendas.

STRONGER has a superior screenplay by John Pollono, based on the book “Stronger” by Jeff Bauman and Bret Witter. The dialogue is first-rate, natural, cutting and incisive, and at times laugh-out loud funny.   The combination of the writing and acting brings Jeff’s family to life.

I’ve always been a fan of Jake Gyllenhaal, and while he has delivered a lot of memorable performances over the years, his work here as Jeff Bauman ranks as one of his best. Sure, he captures the obvious pain the man went through after losing his legs, but more so, he shows what it’s like to be a guy who didn’t really want to be in the limelight, who didn’t want to be a hero, a guy who really struggles when people cheer for him, because he feels he doesn’t deserve it, because he knows he’d rather be out drinking with his friends or at home playing video games.

Tatiana Maslany is just as good as Jeff’s girlfriend Erin. She feels incredibly guilty that Jeff was there that day because of her, and she really loves Jeff and is more than willing to move in with him and help him, even with her reservations that he so often drops the ball and leaves her hanging.  I really enjoyed Maslany’s performance, and she has some of the more emotional scenes in the movie.

Miranda Richardson is excellent as Jeff’s mother, Patty.  She makes Patty more than just a down and out drunken mother.  She really cares for her son.  More often than not she screws things up, but she always puts her son’s needs first.  For example, soon after Erin moves in, Patty catches her leaving Jeff’s room wearing just a nightshirt, and she glares at Erin and asks her, “Did you sleep with my son?”  To which Erin casually replies, “Yes.” And that’s that.  No insane Norma Bates ravings.  Sure, later there is a messy painful argument in front of Jeff between Erin and Patty in their car, and Patty shrieks “You’re off the team!” but later when Jeff decides he can’t live without Erin and meets with her to get her back, it’s Patty who drives him there.

All the actors who play Jeff’s family members stand out.

Veteran actor Clancy Brown plays Jeff’s father Big Jeff, who’s no longer with Patty.  In that first scene in the hospital, it’s Big Jeff who’s aggressively arguing with nearly everyone.

And longtime Boston comic  and RESCUE ME (2004-11) star Lenny Clarke delivers a scene-stealing performance as Uncle Bob.  He has humorous lines in nearly every scene he’s in, and he serves as that much-needed comic relief as the family scenes are often very tense. It’s a memorable performance.

Danny McCarthy has some fine moments as Jeff’s former Cotsco manager Kevin, and Carlos Sanz delivers a sensitive, moving performance as Carlos, the man who saved Jeff’s life that day at the finish line, whose own story is just as emotional and inspirational.

Director David Gordon Green does an excellent job here.  I especially liked the way he handled the bombing scene.  When the bombs first go off, there’s minimal coverage in the movie.  It isn’t until much later, when Jeff looks back at the moment and remembers what happened, that we get in close and see firsthand what Jeff saw shortly after the bombs exploded.  The images are not easily forgotten.

There’s also an effective scene where the doctors are removing the dressings from Jeff’s legs that really give the audience the idea of just how much pain Jeff was experiencing at the time.

The film is not slow, nor overbearing, nor syrupy-sweet inspirational.  It’s nicely paced, funny and hard-hitting at the same time, and most importantly, brutally honest.

STRONGER is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year, and I definitely recommend it.

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PATRIOTS DAY (2017) Solid Yet Uninspiring Re-Telling of Boston Marathon Bombing

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PATRIOTS DAY tells the riveting true tale of the Boston Marathon bombing, which occurred on April 13, 2013, and it tells it efficiently and without any fanfare.

As such, it works better as a docudrama than a suspense thriller.

PATRIOTS DAY follows fictional character Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg), a Boston homicide detective, who finds himself demoted for a day, Patriots Day, where he’s forced to work as a beat cop in uniform covering the finish line at the Boston Marathon.

The rest of the characters are pretty much based on real people.

There’s Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman), FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon), Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick (Michael Beach), and Watertown Police Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese (J.K. Simmons) who plays an instrumental role in the fierce firefight between Watertown police and the bombing suspects in the wee hours of the morning on a densely populated Watertown residential street.

There’s the young M.I.T. police officer Sean Collier (Jake Picking) who tragically loses his life to the bombers.

And then there are the victims.  Young couple Patrick Downes (Christopher O’Shea) and Jessica Kensky (Rachel Brosnahan), who both lost limbs during the explosion, as well as others, who are all given some background stories before the bombing, and we follow their plight afterwards.

There’s also Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang) the young Chinese man whose car is hijacked by the bombers, and whose daring escape from the Tsarnaev’ brothers is one of the more exciting scenes in the movie.

Which brings us of course to the bombers themselves, Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Themo Melikidze) and his nineteen year-old brother Dzhokhar (Alex Wolff).  While we learn that they are Muslims and have a radical agenda, not much light other than this is shed on their characters.  Nonetheless, both Melikidze and Wolff deliver chilling portrayals of these two terrorists.

Even Red Sox player David Ortiz shows up at the end for his famous address to the Fenway faithful after the ordeal had ended.

After the bombing, the story follows the ensuing investigation and manhunt, and Wahlberg’s Tommy Saunders is there every step of the way, which actually works against the story.  While Wahlbeg is fine as Saunders, it’s really not all that believable that one officer would be there at the finish line for the bombing, and then there again on that fateful night in Watertown for the climactic shoot-out, as well as on hand the following day for the arrest of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

PATRIOTS DAY has its moments, mostly because the real story is so horrific and the ensuing manhunt so captivating.  If it were not based on a true story, and the film was to be judged on its artistic merits alone, PATRIOTS DAY would be a far less successful film. And while it does a solid job telling this story, there were times when I wanted more from this movie.

In short, I didn’t learn anything from this film that I didn’t already know from following the story in the news when it happened back in April 2013.

The cast and performances are fine, led by Wahlberg who could play a Boston cop in his sleep.  John Goodman, Kevin Bacon, and J.K. Simmons lend solid star power in their supporting roles, although they aren’t on-screen enough to make too much of an impact.  Of the three, Simmons probably fares the best.

The same can be said for the victims, with the exception of Jake Picking as M.I.T. Officer Sean Collier.  In his brief screen time, Picking really brings Collier to life, setting the stage for one of the saddest scenes in the film, as the officer’s life is cut short by the bombers’ bullets.

And both Themo Melikidze and Alex Wolff are chlling as the Tsarnaev brothers.  Melikidze portrays older brother Tamerlan as cold and calculating, completely committed to his jihad agenda, while Wolff plays younger brother Dzhokhar as the follower, doing whatever his older brother asks, when, that is, he’s not texting on his phone or behaving like a nineteen year old.

Their performances are adequate but didn’t wow me.  Perhaps the best thing that can be said of them is that director Peter Berg truly captures what they looked like.  Their resemblance to the real brothers is uncanny.

Not to get political, but in the scene where Tamerlan Tsarnaev spouts off his agenda to his Chinese hostage Dun Meng, talking about how the 9/11 attacks were faked, and that Americans don’t really know the truth about what’s going on in the world, as we are continually duped by a manipulative government and a crooked media that feeds us false news, I couldn’t help but think how his insane banter sounded eerily similar to one Donald J. Trump.

And speaking of Dun Meng, Jimmy O. Yang’s performance is a good one and rather memorable.

PATRIOTS DAY was directed by Peter Berg, whose previous movie DEEPWATER HORIZON (2016) also starred Mark Wahlberg.  That one told the story of the oil rig fire in April 2010 which caused the worst oil spill in U.S. history.  That film was just OK, and I found it all rather superficial.

Berg runs into similar problems here with PATRIOTS DAY, although not as much, and that’s because even though once again the characters are not really that well-developed, it’s less of an issue here because the strength of the film is its story.  And Berg gets the story right.  He does a nice job chronicling events from just before the bombing until the final arrest.

That being said, the film is not as powerful as I expected it to be.  The actual bombing scene isn’t quite as horrific or emotional as I thought it would be, either.

Also, I really expected more regarding the behind the scenes manhunt.  After all, the authorities actually shut down the city of Boston for a night as they searched for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, but other than a brief conversation where we see the authorities make this decision, the film has little else to say about it.

One of the best scenes in the movie doesn’t even involve any of the main characters.  It’s the interrogation of Tamerlan’s wife by some mysterious government authorities.  It’s probably the most fascinating scene in the film.

Director Berg, Matt Cook, and Joshua Zetumer wrote the screenplay which does a concrete yet uninspiring job of telling this story.  The facts are all there, even when sometimes the emotions aren’t.

I enjoyed PATRIOTS DAY, but I didn’t leave the theater shaken or upset.. For me, that happened the first time around, watching the events unfold in real-time on television back in April 2013.

That was real.  This is just a movie, and it shows.

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