An introspective analysis of how our society reacts to public tragedy, “Stronger” hones its focus on Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), as he confronts life following the terrorist bombings of the Boston Marathon, which resulted in the amputation of his legs above the knee.
Aside from the weight it carries in dealing with an actual, deeply traumatic event, the film also grapples with the very real emotional repercussions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, that follow victims of such tragedy. Coping with a myriad of both physical and emotional pains, Jeff is also forced to wrestle with the idea of being the glorified mascot for the “Boston Strong” slogan—shouted at him wherever he goes.
The movie, based on Bauman’s autobiography, starts with a scene showing him mistakenly burning a whole tray of oven-roasted chicken in his job at Costco. He was in a rush to return to the comfort of the local bar where, of course, the Red Sox would be playing to a scene of a rowdy, boozed-up crowd.
After successfully convincing his boss that he needs to get to the bar so he can watch the game with his “lucky beer” rather than clean up the burnt poultry, he settles into the overwhelmingly Bostonian atmosphere with friends, family and even his mother Patty (played by an exceptional Miranda Richardson). Jeff is painted as the charming screw-up, who is already trying to confront a perception of immaturity.
He stumbles into his ex-girlfriend Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany), who has stopped in to collect money to race in the marathon. Jeff beams at the thought of proving his worth to her. As the narrative proceeds, it is their bond that becomes the nucleus of the film.
Some time later, he is at the finish line of the marathon cheering and raising a vibrant homemade sign in support of Erin. Moments before the explosion that would send a shockwave across the nation and claim Jeff’s legs, he sees what appears to be one of the bombers—wearing the now infamous black hat and sunglasses. Waking up in the hospital and only able to breathe through a tube, the interaction is one of the first pieces of communication that he scribbles on a piece of paper. The second inscription he makes reads as “Lt. Dan,” which refers to the fictional character from the movie “Forrest Gump” and illustrates the false sense of strength that Jeff demonstrates to his family.
One of the most powerful moments of the movie is an emotional scene in which the nurses begin to remove the bloodied bandages from his legs for the first time. The camera is intently focused on Jeff’s eyes, his legs blurred in the background and Erin by his side. Director David Gordon Green makes a bold statement in this choice: the carnage and chaos left by the bombings is not as important as the life of the victims and how they recover thereafter.
Simply put, “Stronger” is an intimate movie about battling through wounds left by tragedy and how society treats those survivors with a heightened prestige, which can often create a unique kind of trauma and guilt.
Green is keen to observe the difficulty that faced Bauman after he was thrust into the spotlight, sometimes being involuntarily subject to public appearances by his family. Being the face of post-marathon grief is an understandably heavy burden for Jeff. Labelled a hero and forced to be the face of recovery for Boston, Bauman struggles to maintain his own sense of humanity and sense of personhood.
As a biopic, the movie seems to be relatively straightforward, However, Green is wise to avoid most trite clichés, and the gripping, fresh dynamic in Jeff and Erin’s romance makes for an interesting take on the genre.
The performances by both Gyllenhaal and Maslany are remarkably moving and likely to garnish each with plenty of honors come awards season. Gyllenhaal, for the past few years, has been one of the most enticing actors to watch on the big screen. His ability to thoroughly adopt a character and embody their essence is something to marvel at, and his execution in “Stronger” is no different.
Rather than approach Bauman’s character with an outright impersonation, he and Green made the artistic decision to try and achieve an evocation of who Jeff is. The choice pays off big time. What audiences are left with is an emotional and engaging relationship between Jeff and Erin.
Daniel Monahan can be reached [email protected]