This film about Boston Marathon bombing victim Jeff Bauman avoids flag-waving, tear-jerking cliches
Jeff Bauman never asked to be a hero, or a symbol, or “Boston Strong.” Those labels were thrust upon him.
That is part of the fabric of “Stronger,” the frank, straightforward and triumphant film about Bauman, who was there near the finish line in 2013 when terrorists detonated a bomb at the Boston Marathon. Bauman lost both legs in the incident — the photo of him being wheeled away from the scene was one of the day’s lasting images — and “Stronger” chronicles his long, painful, rocky efforts toward recovery.
“Stronger” is the second movie about the Boston Marathon bombing this year, following January’s “Patriots Day,” but it shares little in common with Peter Berg’s tick-tock procedural. “Patriots Day” covered, in great detail, the exhaustive manhunt for the two perpetrators, while “Stronger” lets those details unfold in the periphery, in news clips overheard in the background of scenes.
Here the focus is on Bauman, who is played by Jake Gyllenhaal in a typically excellent performance that isn’t afraid to show the rough edges around the character. At times he’s a drunken mess, shutting out those around him and questioning how he ended up in his position.
Specifically, he was at the race that day rooting on his on-again, off-again girlfriend Erin (“Orphan Black’s” Tatiana Maslany in her first big movie role), trying to win her back after their latest breakup. He’s there to champion her, she’s not sure he should be there, but there’s clearly a connection between the two. It turns out their topsy-turvy relationship is the least of their worries: When the bomb goes off without warning, Bauman blacks out, waking up out of a coma days later and realizing he’s missing his legs.
When he wakes up, he’s able to poke fun at himself. “Lt Dan,” he scribbles on a sheet of paper from his hospital bed, a reference to the double-amputee “Forrest Gump” character. But there’s much work to be done ahead, both physically and mentally, and “Stronger” rolls up its sleeves and gets to work.
Director David Gordon Green, who switches genres like some directors switch pants — he oscillates between serious drama (“All the Real Girls,” “Joe”), stoner comedy (“Pineapple Express,” TV’s “Eastbound & Down”) and even horror (next up is the “Halloween” rebuff) — has a knack for characters, and he gives “Stronger” an authentic, lived-in feel. Boston-set films tend to be filled with colorful, loud and unkempt family units (think “The Fighter”), and “Stronger” is no different. Miranda Richardson leads the pack as Bauman’s mother, Patty, who isn’t necessarily opportunistic, but can’t resist the temptation of setting up her son with an interview with Oprah. When he declines, with the full support of Erin, she wilts.
John Pollono’s script, based on Bauman’s book, patently avoids the cliches that would make this film a by-the-numbers inspirational weepie. It is colored with the emotional grays that Bauman occupies during his recovery, as he deals with the day-to-day grit of his comeback. Nothing comes easy, and nothing is sugarcoated.
Maslany makes a deep impression, inhabiting a character who feels guilt over the role she played in Bauman’s injury — he wouldn’t have been there had he not been there to cheer her on — and feeling the frustration of the situation going forward. (Matters are complicated when she becomes pregnant.) Maslany doesn’t make Erin a saint, and the real-life story of Jeff and Erin has a sad coda: The couple split over the summer, after filming was completed.
But that’s life, and Green’s film deals with life as it comes. This isn’t a heroic, rah-rah tale, as those are rarely presented in real life. Instead, “Stronger” is tough and hard and ultimately resilient, just like the story it’s telling.
Rated R for language throughout, some graphic injury images, and brief sexuality/nudity
Running time: 119 minutes