I’ve been bemoaning the state of disability in cinema for the last year. But just like Neil Armstrong took one small step for man, last weekend’s release of the Jake Gyllenhaal drama Stronger might squeak the door open a smidge toward acknowledging actual disabled people in their own narratives.
The true story of Jeff Bauman (Gyllenhaal), who lost both his legs in the Boston Marathon bombing, follows the general themes already laid out by disabled narratives, focusing on white men hobbled in the prime of their life. The distinction lies in how director David Gordon Green and screenwriter John Pollono use disability as a gateway to questioning why the same disabled stories are told in the first place.
Stronger owes a great deal to Forrest Gump, even referring to that film’s disabled antihero, Gary Sinise’s Lt. Dan, to punctuate Jeff’s newly amputated status. Forrest Gump was the first wheelchair-bound character I ever experienced, and though his bitterness was already a trope for disabled narratives — previously seen in Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July — there’s an outlet for it. As Lt. Dan criticizes a priest for telling him “God is listening,” it’s an understandable moment of doubt and contempt for how able-bodied people simplify disability. In Stronger’s case, Jeff’s plight extends beyond the individual, toward a society that too often glorifies disability for media purposes.
The film’s first half follows Jeff as he battles PTSD and his family’s misguided attempts to find benefits, whether motivated by their own selfishness or not, to Jeff’s disability. He waves a flag at a hockey game, is invited to be interviewed by Oprah, and becomes the symbol of “Boston Strong.” His repeated questioning of why he’s become the “hero” of the bombing falls on deaf ears, leading to an increased burden as he struggles to deal with his own changes on top of being a representative for the tragedy.
In the wake of any tragedy, the media often picks out a specific person to become the beacon of hope for those who survived. Oftentimes this person is picked based on how much the media perceives they’ve suffered. The film slyly criticizes the media for assuming Jeff is a saintly figure purely because he’s become disabled. At one point a couple asks for a picture with him and have no qualms with declaring that his tragedy inspires them to be thankful for their lives.
This goes to the heart of why the same disabled narratives exist in the first place: They act as cautionary tales for the able-bodied. People in the movie see Jeff’s situation as something to pity, something to exploit, or something to remind them how precious life is, all of which drives him to further isolate himself from his loved ones. The only one who doesn’t treat him like a precious object is his girlfriend, Erin (Tatiana Maslany). The presentation of Jeff as a shiftless layabout before the bombing, coupled with some searing moments where the couple argue about things unrelated to his disability, does a lot to remind the audience that disability can’t be equated with saintliness. Becoming disabled is a life-altering event, but it never changes Jeff’s inherent flaws; he was lazy and selfish before, and he’s lazy and selfish after. It is only through being limited that Jeff discovers how to be a better boyfriend and person because of the infantilization he receives from others. Feeling limited and babied compels him to take initiative and change himself.
Stronger is also worthy of praise for nailing little things that are often overlooked in disabled movies, often because disabled consultants aren’t on-set. Instead of the bulky hospital wheelchair most movies are content to set a disabled character in, Jake has a custom chair. The audience also sees him utilize a transfer board to get out of his chair and into a car. He even transfers himself out of his chair onto the toilet and into the bathtub. These moments aren’t profound, but after watching so many movies where disabled characters are hefted around like bags of flour, it’s nice that someone did their homework. Even the simple thought of putting the camera low to the ground, on Gyllenhaal, as opposed to putting the camera on the able-bodied people around him implies an awareness of the disabled audience watching the film.
Stronger isn’t a flawless narrative; it still features a happy ending meant to inspire. But where other movies fail to do their homework, Green and company (including Bauman himself, who was involved) create a movie that acknowledges the real disabled people who are seeking correct representation on screen. It’s a head nod, but that’ll do for now.
Kristen Lopez lives in Sacramento, is Sacramento Strong, if that’s a thing.