Stronger's Masterful Sense of Healing After Trauma

The Atlantic looks back on the key film scenes of 2017, this time a post-surgery moment in David Gordon Green’s inspirational biopic.

Jake Gyllenhaal in 'Stronger'

Over the next month, The Atlantic’s “And, Scene” series will delve into some of the most interesting films of the year by examining a single, noteworthy moment and unpacking what it says about 2017. Next up is David Gordon Green’s Stronger. (Read our previous entries here.)

By 10 minutes into Stronger, Jeff Bauman’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) legs are gone. They’ve been amputated above the knee, his parents are told, because of the damage he sustained in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, a terror attack that killed three and injured hundreds of others. As Bauman’s mother Patty (Miranda Richardson) comes into the hospital and sees her son for the first time, the director David Gordon Green holds on her heartbreaking stare for as long as possible. In doing so, he’s conveying everything the audience needs to know through another person’s empathetic reaction, rather than through the more distressing sight of Bauman’s wounded body.

Throughout Stronger, which dramatizes its subject’s inspiring recovery after the bombing, Green trains his camera on the people who make up Bauman’s support system. Their efforts aren’t always helpful: There’s Bauman’s immediate family, prone to yelling at each other in the best of times; his drinking buddies, full of gumption but lacking in tact; his shellshocked ex-girlfriend Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany), who had been running in the marathon (Bauman had showed up in the crowd to try to impress her and win her back). Viewers also meet Kevin, Bauman’s boss at Costco, who announces that the company’s insurance will cover all his medical expenses.

But even more essential to the movie is the way Green focuses on the hospital workers, many of whom are played by the medical staff who treated the real-life Bauman. Green, who emerged as a director making small-scale indie dramas such as George Washington and All the Real Girls, returns to the naturalism of his earlier work with Stronger. The biopic tugs on the heartstrings not by exaggerating Bauman’s anguish, but by emphasizing the sheer collaborative effort it took to keep him alive and get him healthy. The best example of Green’s interest in the bigger picture of recovery is a moment of clinical care that other directors might not think to include: the first changing of Bauman’s bandages.

This standout scene comes half an hour in. Bauman has just regained consciousness after the surgery to remove his legs. Green (and the cinematographer Sean Bobbitt) perch the camera on Bauman’s shoulder, keeping his face in the foreground and what remains of his legs in the background, out of focus. We listen as the doctor (Jeffrey Kalish, the real surgeon who amputated Bauman’s legs) describes each step of the process calmly and thoroughly, while the nurses assist. “Some people like to look, some people don’t like to look at all,” Kalish tells Bauman of the bandage-changing. The ordeal is as reassuring as possible, as every well-performed medical procedure should be.

Green’s unbroken shot lasts about four minutes. As the dressings come off, Hurley’s face enters the frame, wincing when Bauman cries in pain, though she otherwise smiles encouragingly. The whole scene should be incredibly difficult to watch, but instead it’s somewhat mesmerizing—perhaps because of how rare it is for such a film to avoid doubling down on its subject’s suffering and to instead show how doctors and nurses seek to comfort their patients. Hurley’s appearance midway through is a quiet and lovely metaphor in itself: Here’s a person who had cut ties with Bauman reentering his life, partly out of guilt but also out of genuine compassion.

Stronger was a film I initially had no interest in seeing (the subject matter seemed too gruesome and intense) that stunned me with how uniquely it approached the semiotics of pain, therapy, and healing, processes that cinema has tried to depict since the earliest days of the form. I went into the movie wondering how it could tackle such a recent tragedy with care. But I was surprised to find that Green used this timing to his advantage, by bringing under-sung medical heroes like Kalish aboard and treating Bauman’s tale as a living document.

While Stronger is a story about recovery, it’s just as importantly about trauma, and how easy it can be to ignore lingering psychological wounds, even as the body mends. After all, Bauman’s rehabilitation didn’t end with him relearning how to walk—a lesson that’s timely in 2017, even as the stigma surrounding discussions of mental health diminishes. The second half of Stronger deals more with Bauman’s PTSD and his unwillingness to acknowledge it in hopes of preserving his happy-go-lucky persona. Green demonstrates beautifully in his film that healing is so often both a physical and emotional process. And there to help Bauman through it all is the community around him—the family, friends, and medical professionals who had been by his side from minute one.

Previously: mother!

Next Up: The Florida Project