Faster and higher weren’t options

W hy a civilian? Why is it so important that this is the biopic of a regular guy turned paraplegic and not somebody who chose a military life? Do we not feel more for the person who makes a willing sacrifice rather than one simply in the wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time? Would this story have played better about a marine who lost limbs in Iraq saving a buddy and needed the buddy to return the favor metaphorically when they both returned stateside?

Those were exactly my thoughts for the first hour of Stronger, a picture which, like the title suggest, gets Stronger. In fact, this film has the unique distinction of paralleling its hero – as the man develops from a state of arrested development, so does the film from something relatively immature and afraid of emotional commitment to one that any director’s mother can be proud of. Please stay until the end, people.

At approximately 2:49 PM local time on Patriots Day, 2013, two assholes solidified their future residence in Hell by detonating a pair of crude homemade bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. If that feels like déjà vu, it should; I’m plagiarizing myself, but screw it; exact same historic set-up, different take. Among those injured was Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), a Costco chicken jockey a fair distance beyond school age still living in his mother’s apartment and periodically remembering that having a girlfriend is better than not having a girlfriend. Getting Jeff to show up at the marathon to cheer on Erin (Tatiana Maslany) was a feat in itself. To say he wasn’t prepared for the consequences demeans the word consequences. This guy is generally unprepared to cross the street.

Stronger chose not to show the gruesome until past the 90-minute mark. Like Jeff, the film had to work its way up to it. When Jeff wakes up and discovers from a hospital bed that he has no legs, he writes the words “LT DAN” to show a previously undiscovered alliance with the fictional Forrest Gump character. It’s a sickeningly funny moment, and in retrospect fitting of Jeff. You know this guy; you’ve seen him in bars and at ball games, getting drunk and acting stupid with his friends. For his injuries, Jeff gets a mountain of attention he neither wants, nor needs. He doesn’t know why he’s a hero and it’s hard to disagree with him. Mom (Miranda Richardson) is barely more than an enabler. Jeff himself doesn’t seem real keen on walking again.

In the middle of his pain, Jeff has yanked Erin back from her independence. Does she help out of love or pity? Few movies before Stronger have ever impressed the difficulty of the caregiver. Jeff wasn’t capable of adulting even when he had legs. Without them, he’s not terribly far from infantile; he has both physical and emotional needs that require something close to full-time attention. He’s right; he is no hero. Sure, there is a moment of slack-jawed incredulity and pure entertainment that goes into the episode where no-legged Jeff drunk drives back home – yes, you read that right. Yet at this point, I’m more than a little frustrated with Stronger itself. Why is this guy important? Isn’t there a G.I., a war dog, a valiant chipmunk worth my attention? Why this guy?

The answer to all lies in the question itself – Jeff is important precisely because he’s no marine. He’s important because he is that guy we know at the bar who has tenuous grasp on the concepts of commitment, friendship, and hygiene. Stronger is about making that guy into a man perhaps well before he is capable of the feat. Stronger is where we learn that it’s very possible that particular guy never gets beyond his mom’s apartment while he still has legs. Both the film and the man himself get increasingly more impressive as they mature. I wouldn’t call this a winning formula – you generally want to root for your hero during the first hour of film, but I’m very glad I didn’t walk out of this one, and, of course, even gladder that I could.

♪He lacks legs, took terror to lose them
He taps kegs; he sure can abuse them
He’s holdin’ back, wonderin’ what adults do
Will his pain be tragic or breakthrough?
A freeloadah, two feet shortah
It’s wicked ahhsome♫

Rated R, 116 Minutes
Director: David Gordon Green
Writer: John Pollono
Genre: Cutting one off at the knees
Type of being most likely to enjoy this film: The loved ones of challenging personalities
Type of being least likely to enjoy this film: Those without a tolerance for adversity

♪ Parody Inspired by “Legs”

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