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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SULLY (2016) – Remarkable Story, Exceptional Movie

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SULLY (2016) has a remarkable story to tell, so even if it were just a mediocre movie, it would still be worth seeing due to the strength of its story.  The good news is SULLY is more than just a mediocre movie:  it’s an impeccably made film by director Clint Eastwood, and it features yet another superb performance by Tom Hanks, which means that simply put, SULLY is  an exceptional movie, one that you should definitely see at the theater.

SULLY tells the incredible true story of the “Miracle on the Hudson,” which occurred on January 15, 2009 when airline Captain Chesley Sullenberger guided his disabled plane onto the frigid waters of the Hudson River, a forced landing in which all 155 people on board, passengers and crew, survived.

Sully (Tom Hanks) becomes an instant hero.  Yet, the airline and its insurance company are none too happy that one of their planes ended up in the Hudson River.  In fact, their computer simulations show that the plane could have made it to two airports.  They believe Sully erred in his decision to land the plane on the water.  Of course, Sully disagrees, saying it’s his belief that there was no way they would have made it to an airport.  He did the only thing he could do.

Suddenly Sully and co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) are the subjects of a massive investigation into the forced landing, putting their reputations on the line, and in Sully’s case, making him second guess himself, fearing that perhaps he made a mistake and put the lives of the 155 people on board in jeopardy.

There are many fine things about SULLY.

To begin with, it has an excellent script by Todd Komarnicki, based on the book  “Highest Duty” by Chesley Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow.  It makes the wise choice of not telling its tale in chronological order.  Had it done so, the movie would have featured the exciting forced landing first, leaving the anti-climactic and dialogue-driven investigation to follow.  When SULLY opens, the forced landing has already happened, and the movie dives right into the investigation.  The landing is shown via flashbacks.

The dialogue is first-rate, and there are plenty of memorable lines, like when an official congratulates Sully and tells him that New York hasn’t had much good news lately, especially with stories involving airplanes.

What can you say about director Clint Eastwood at this point?  Eastwood is 86 years old, and the fact that at his age he’s still directing and sometimes acting in movies is incredible.  And he’s not only making movies, but he’s making quality movies!  Before SULLY, he directed AMERICAN SNIPER (2014), one of the best movies of that year.  SULLY is one of the best movies of this year.

For years, starting in the 1960s, Eastwood was the best action star on the planet.  In 1992, he won an Oscar for Best Director for UNFORGIVEN (1992), a film that also won Best Picture that year, in what many at the time considered to be Eastwood’s swan song.  Eastwood was 62.  Since then, Eastwood has gone on to direct one quality movie after another.  Sure, he’s had some misfires along the way— HEREAFTER  (2010), for example— but for the most part his films have been phenomenal.  His last two movies AMERICAN SNIPER and JERSEY BOYS (2014) were both among my favorite films of 2014.  And I can’t stress this enough:  Eastwood is 86 years old.  It’s quite possible that when his career is over, he might be remembered more for being one of Hollywood’s greatest directors than one of its greatest action stars.

Eastwood does a phenomenal job here with SULLY.  The high energy behind this movie is not what you expect from a director pushing 90.  AMERICAN SNIPER may be the more impressive of the two films, because it had a more complicated story to tell, whereas SULLY just on the strength of its story alone promises to be a crowd pleaser.

But Eastwood uses his talents behind the camera to make this movie even better.  The investigation scenes have Eastwood’s stamp all over them.  Indeed, you can trace the theme here all the way back to Eastwood’s iconic actioner DIRTY HARRY (1971), which of course he only starred in, but Eastwood embraced Harry Callahan’s law-in-your-own-hands anti-burearacy philosophy as his own, and it would show up in future Dirty Harry films and other Eastwood projects.

You can see it here in SULLY.  Aaron Eckhart’s Jeff Skiles tells his best friend Sully that the airline should be praising Sully— everyone survived!— not investigating him.  But that’s not enough for the airline.  Their plane ended up in the river, and in their eyes, that’s something that should not have happened.  Sure, no one died, but everyone’s life was put in jeopardy.  In Eastwood’s vision, this way of thinking is insanely ridiculous.

Eastwood also makes wise creative choices.  The forced landing is shown twice.  The first time we see it from different perspectives, including from the air traffic controllers who are desperately trying to convince Sully to head to an airport.  But the second time it’s shown in real time and never leaves the cockpit and so we see Sully and co-pilot Skiles deal with the situation as it happens.

Both sequences are incredibly intense, and they provide some of the best cinematic moments of the year.

And both Eastwood and the script take full advantage of our emotions.  We follow a few of the passengers specifically, including a man flying with his two adult sons, and after the landing, they are separated.  Later, once they find each other, one of the sons exclaims, “Can you believe this?  We crashed!  And we all survived!”  It’s the perfect sentiment as it is what everyone in the audience is thinking.

The sequence after the crash, when everyone is in the water, waiting to be rescued by the oncoming ferryboats and New York rescue crews is also intense because the water is icy cold and the rescuers only have minutes to work with.  Later, Aaron Eckhart’s Skiles declares, “I’ve never been happier to be in New York!”

Tom Hanks is superb as Sully.  The best part of his performance is the self-doubt he puts himself through, wondering if perhaps his instincts were wrong.  Hanks also shows how important duty is to Sully.  Once they land in the water, he makes sure he’s the last one off the plane, that everyone has gotten off, and he doesn’t relax until he knows for sure that no one has died.  The moment the news is relayed to him that all 155 people on board have been accounted for is one of the more emotional moments in the movie.

Like Eastwood and his previous film, AMERICAN SNIPER, Hanks in his previous movie BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015) may have had a more challenging assignment in that he played a more complicated character.  But as Sully, Hanks is excellent.  It’s another terrific peformance by the very talented actor.

Aaron Eckhart is also memorable as co-pilot Jeff Skiles.  And the rest of the cast, in smaller roles, are all solid.

The past few weeks have seen the release of some outstanding movies, like the critically acclaimed HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016), and the under-the-radar HANDS OF STONE (2016).  SULLY is right up there with these gems, perhaps even the best of the bunch.

It’s certainly the most inspiring and emotionally satisfying.

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