Stronger tells the true story of Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), a Boston-area native who lost both of his legs in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. The film is based on Bauman’s memoir of the same name and is the second feature-length film thus far to come out of 2013’s tragedy, the first being the Mark Wahlberg-Peter Berg collaboration Patriots Day. Despite having the same subject matter, there are few similarities between Stronger and Patriots Day.
Patriots Day provided an intense hour by hour street level view of the morning of the race, the attack itself, and its aftermath—including the manhunt and eventual capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
Stronger takes a much more muted approach to its depiction of the tragedy. It adapts the perspective of Bostonians who sat in confusion and horror as the events unfolded on the news. When a bedridden Bauman hears the cheers of his family and friends in the next room after the news that the second bomber has been caught, his painful journey has only just begun.
In the opening scenes of the film, Bauman is depicted as a good-natured Costco deli worker who convinces his boss to let him leave work early so he can go watch the Red Sox at a local watering hole with his lucky “beeah.” At the bar his intoxicated mother (Miranda Richardson) half jokingly tells Bauman to “go f—k himself.” The film wastes no time in establishing that it takes place in the Boston area. Or, at least Boston according to Hollywood. It’s a shame that director David Gordon Green chooses to pile onto the Beantown stereotypes so early on. Although they may be accurate to Bauman’s life, audience’s familiarity Good Will Hunting makes them feel a bit tedious, even 20 years since its premiere.
During the obligatory Boston bar scene, Bauman learns that his on-again, off-again girlfriend Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany) is running the Marathon for charity. This is what prompts him to be at the finish on that fateful day. In the moments before the explosions, Stronger ratchets up the tension to nauseating levels as a sweeping aerial shot of the sun shining down on the Boston Marathon transitions to shots of crowds lining Boylston St. to watch the runners. The audience looks on at the hundreds of people oblivious to the imminent peril. Particularly gut-wrenching is a steady shot of the dozens of runners’ legs seemingly all moving in unison as they make the their way toward the finish line.
Upon seeing her boyfriend lying in the ICU, Hurley’s face is awash in sorrow as she cannot help but blame herself for Bauman being at the finish line that day.
Despite being racked with guilt, Hurley quickly becomes Bauman’s greatest lifeline. Gyllenhaal conveys Bauman’s pain, humiliation, rage, and despair with great effect. The most powerful part in Gyllenhaal’s performance, however, is his portrayal of Bauman’s trauma. The most significant moment of this comes when, during a public appearance, Bauman conjures up memories of what happened to him on the day of the attack. Although the scene is intercut with images of Bauman lying on a blood-soaked Boylston St., the dazed vacant look of sheer terror in Gyllenhaal’s eyes is all-telling, rendering the gruesome flashbacks almost unnecessary.
That being said, the film far from portrays Bauman as just a sympathetic victim as he descends into hopelessness and self-pity. Stronger’s depiction of Bauman is not always flattering as he engages in nights of drunken debauchery and lashes out at his girlfriend. These scenes give the film a greater sense of honesty by showing the complexities of life after such a devastating injury.
In addition to Gyllenhaal’s compelling performance, Richardson and Maslany provide plenty of dramatic horsepower as they clash over who holds Bauman’s best interests. Richardson, normally a refined British actress, gives Bauman’s chain-smoking alcoholic mother a nasty overbearing and manipulative edge as she cannot help but be enamored with her son’s newfound and much unwanted status as a local hero.
Maslany, known for starring in the critically acclaimed television series Orphan Black, gives an even more compelling performance. Behind the puffy eyes and tear-stained face, she often appears as a woman of great inner strength. She refuses to accept Bauman’s childish tendencies that have plagued him long before he lost his legs along as she and Bauman grapple with their relationship. The academy would be foolish to overlook her for a best supporting actress nomination.
Both Richardson and Malslanly bring tension to their scenes. Both characters hold their own as the rivalry between the two women overcomes to a profanity-laden head as to who has Bauman’s best interests. This moment signifies a low point for Bauman and the beginning of his realization that he must move on from his mother’s smothering presence.
It is not until meeting the person, a man named Carlos (Carlos Sanz), who saved his life that Bauman is able to climb out of the valley of despair. This quiet scene of redemption between the two men who shared an experience few could ever truly comprehend is one of the film’s best. Although the struggles Bauman still faces in his personal life leave the happily ever after ending somewhat dubious, Stronger serves as a powerful portrayal of a man who despite losing both his legs, refuses to be paralyzed.
Featured Image By Lionsgate Films