“Stronger” is not the story of a bomb or the radical politics that saw it planted at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. It’s the story of the aftermath.
When we first meet Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) he’s a goofy, out-going 28-year-old guy working as a chicken roaster at Costco. The only thing he loves more than the Red Socks is his ex girlfriend Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany), an uptown girl who is running in the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. The night before the run he bumps into her. “I suffered an industrial chicken related accident today,” he says, flirting, “but I’ll be there at the finish line for you.”
History reports what happened next. Bauman, standing next to one of the Boston Bombers, was gravely injured. Rescued by a stranger in a cowboy hat (Carlos Sanz as Carlos Arredondo) he is rushed to the hospital where both his legs are amputated above the knees.
The tragedy shines a spotlight on Jeff who becomes a reluctant beacon for the Boston Strong movement. Released from hospital a hero, as he struggles to learn how to navigate his new body, Erin re-enters his life, drawn by love and guilt for being the reasons he attended the race. As that relationship blossoms and the city embraces him, Jeff grows uneasy, plagued by PTSD. “I don’t want to relive the worst day of my life,” he says.
As he grapples with fame, a mother (Miranda Richardson) who lives vicariously through his newfound celebrity, his relationship with Erin becomes strained. It isn’t until he reconnects with Carlos, the man who saved his life, that Jeff begins to piece together the broken shards of his life.
Because we know the story of the Boston bombing so well, tension builds soon as the marathon scene begins. A man with a backpack, ball cap and shades bumps into Jeff, signalling what is to come but this isn’t an action movie. It is strongest when it gets to be emotional care of the film, Jeff’s inability to deal with his new reality.
Director David Gordon Green is aided by a nuanced performance from Gyllenhaal that mutes his usual movie star physique in favour of a more vulnerable physicality—the scenes of his struggle to adapt to his wheelchair are painful—in favour of a rich inner life. His performance provides a glimpse of Jeff’s complicated feelings as he comes to grips with his new reality. He’s less a movie star and more a down-home heroic figure in-the-making. “I’m reluctant hero,” he says. “People see that I don’t let anything hold me down and maybe they won’t let anything hold them down either.”
As Erin, Maslany is the very embodiment of empathy. She delivers a quiet performance that subtly conveys an olio of emotions from love and guilt to compassion and anger. It’s terrific work that brings some much-needed subtlety to a film that occasionally goes a bit over-the-top.
Jeff’s plain-spoken, high strung family, lead by Jeff Sr (Clancy Brown) and Patty “Did you have sex with my son?” Bauman, is played a bit too broadly. A hint of rough-and-tumble Boston caricature seeps in whenever the Bauman clan gathers in a movie that is at its best when it is restrained.
“Stronger” is sometimes a bit too on the money—“You’re a symbol to a lot of people,” gushes dad, “you’re Boston Strong.”—but works well when it lets go of the triumph of the human spirit angle and allows the characters to behave like people, not heroes.