One in a mil­lion

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - CULTURE | HK - By EL­IZ­A­BETH KERR

The con­cept of ex­cep­tion­al­ism is a funny thing. No one per­son or na­tion will take credit for be­ing spec­tac­u­lar, yet when it’s hoisted upon them, by in­ter­nal or ex­ter­nal forces, it’s even­tu­ally worn like a com­fort­able sweater. At a time when Amer­i­cans, as sin­gle peo­ple, are be­ing sin­gled out (fairly or not) for their fool­ish­ness thanks to their duly elected leader, a re­minder that they can be ex­cep­tional is wel­come. Sim­i­larly, while the United King­dom as a na­tion strug­gles to re­de­fine it­self and its place in the world thanks to its legally ac­cepted op­tion to break from Europe, a re­minder that they can be ex­cep­tional is wel­come.

In Stronger, di­rec­tor David Gor­don Green con­tin­ues his march to­ward top­i­cal film­maker by ex­plor­ing the real-life strug­gle of Bos­ton Costco worker Jeff Bau­man (Jake Gyl­len­haal), who lost both legs in 2013’s marathon bomb­ing on the road back to some­thing akin to nor­malcy. In Dark­est Hour, Atone­ment’s Joe Wright di­rects Gary Old­man to a (prob­a­ble) Os­car nom­i­na­tion as Win­ston Churchill in the first weeks of his ten­ure as UK Prime Min­is­ter at the out­set of World War II. Both films trade in right­eous in­dig­na­tion, self-doubt, and ul­ti­mately the kind of quiet for­ti­tude that makes the two men at the cen­ter of each story so ex­cep­tional. But only one has the grace to ac­knowl­edge the flaws that make its main char­ac­ter hu­man — and it’s not the one you think.

When Stronger be­gins, Bau­man is a work­ing­class no­body try­ing to win back his on-and-off girl­friend Erin (Ta­tiana Maslany, ex­cel­lent), liv­ing with his shrill, op­por­tunis­tic mother Patty (Mi­randa Richard­son), and hang­ing out with his ca­su­ally racist and ho­mo­pho­bic bud­dies at the bar. Life changes dras­ti­cally when he gets out of the hos­pi­tal a freshly mined am­putee and has to restart his life as a sym­bol of un­cowed civic re­silience.

While there’s plenty of “Baaww­ston Straawwng” sen­ti­ment in the film, Green and writer John Pol­lono never pa­per over Bau­man’s mo­ments of self-pity, self­ish­ness, out­wardly di­rected rage, Patty’s cease­less abil­ity to make the story hers, and his fam­ily’s frac­tious dys­func­tion. They do their best to make them real peo­ple, and Gyl­len­haal makes Bau­man em­pa­thetic even when you hate him a bit. It’s not hard to sym­pa­thize with some­one caught in the 24-hour Twit­ter cy­cle that just wants to get bet­ter on their own terms — and not have the weight of an en­tire city’s ex­pec­ta­tions on their shoul­ders. In the end, Bau­man is ex­cep­tional be­cause he’s not ex­cep­tional: he is us, and he blindly blun­ders through a bizarre sit­u­a­tion the way most of us would.

Win­ston Churchill, on the other hand, was not one of us. A life­long pub­lic ser­vant who man­aged — as Stephen Dil­lane’s Vis­count Hal­i­fax de­scribes it in Dark­est Hour — to weaponize the English lan­guage, Churchill was in­deed ex­cep­tional. His un­wa­ver­ing faith in Bri­tish re­solve led to the evac­u­a­tion of Dunkirk — the weeks around which set Churchill on the road to leg­endary sta­tus — and ral­lied par­lia­ment and the peo­ple to re­sist Hitler and “never sur­ren­der”. He’s the man that saved Western Europe, in case you for­got the Bri­tish pre­rog­a­tive to leave it.

Though the mas­sive evac­u­a­tion was cov­ered more cre­atively in Christo­pher Nolan’s Dunkirk this sum­mer, there is no deny­ing the bril­liance of Old­man’s com­mit­ted, sur­pris­ingly un­flashy per­for­mance. With­out him, there’s sim­ply no movie, though it’s deftly sup­ported by Wright’s evoca­tive vi­su­als. Also re­fresh­ing is the re­al­iza­tion that when all is said and done, this is a war movie with no war in it. That said, Dark­est Hour is cut from the same cloth as The Iron Lady, J. Edgar, and The Queen, in that it’s a weak, ha­gio­graphic biopic pur­pose­built for awards con­sid­er­a­tion for its lead ac­tor. Old­man is bet­ter than the ma­te­rial, which is less an ex­am­i­na­tion of what makes a leader great than it is a salve to a na­tional pride.

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