The two best films being released this week are based on high-profile true stories— ’70s tennis drama The Battle of the Sexes (see separate review) and the Boston Marathon bombing aftermath tale Stronger about Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), who had his legs effectively blown off in 2013 when one of the bombs went off right next to him. His struggle to reclaim his life is special because Jeff never saw himself as anything resembling heroic or inspirational. But millions of people saw a photo of him being carried from the bomb site on a stretcher, and it triggered something in Bostonian, Americans, and others.
Based on the book of the same name co-written by Bauman and Bret Witter (adapted by John Pollono), Stronger paints a less-than-flattering portrait of Bauman before the marathon. He was attempting to get back together with his on-again/off-again girlfriend Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany of “Orphan Black”), who kept ending things with him because he was always late when he showed up to things they were supposed to do together. Often he was drunk as well, and the fact that he worked preparing fish at Costco and still lived with his mother (who was no fan of Erin’s and is played Miranda Richardson) didn’t help the situation. In an effort to impress her, he made a sign to hold up at the marathon finish line, and just before she reached it, hundreds of lives were changed from injuries, and three people lost their lives.
Director David Gordon Green does a remarkable job of not only chronicling Bauman’s slow recovery and rehabilitation, but he gives us context for the moments when Jeff stumbles and reverts to his old, unreliable ways. Erin moves in with him, and the film spares us nothing as to the often unsavory process Bauman endured to learn to do everything in his life with no legs, and eventually with state-of-the-art artificial limbs. We meet many of the friends and family who influence Jeff’s life (for better and worse), including his drinking buddies Big D (Nate Richman) and Sully (Richard Lane Jr.)—I think there’s a law that says that any movie set in Boston must contain a character named Sully—his Aunt Jenn (Patricia O’Neil) and Uncle Bob (Lenny Clarke); and his absentee father Big Jeff (Clancy Brown), who would rather pick a fight with someone than listen to the helpful advice they want to give him about his son’s prospects.
Stronger also address quite frankly Jeff’s issues with PTSD, drinking, and his response to people who approach him and use words like “hero.” One of the best scenes involves a backyard barbecue, during which his mom springs on those gathered that her hero Oprah is coming to do a story on her son. The disdain that Jeff and Erin express toward the idea (not toward Oprah specifically) is impressive, especially after everyone has been told he isn’t doing any more interviews or appearances.
The main focus of the film is the strain that is put on Jeff and Erin when Jeff begins to skip both rehab appointments and dates the two of them plan. Erin makes it clear that he is not the only one going through this suffering, and he, in turn, reveals that he holds a certain resentment toward her since he was there support her run. He knows it’s not logical, but logic and emotion don’t often occupy the same space.
Gyllenhaal and Maslany are extraordinary playing two people trying desperately to connect on this new playing field. Bauman is not always the easiest person to like, but you’re always rooting for him, and that gives us the fuel to see his story through. All things lead to Jeff throwing out the opening pitch at a Red Sox game and eventually finding peace with his place as a role model. It’s a more subdued moment than you might imagine, which feels completely appropriate.
Jeff lived a life trying not to stand out, and surviving a terrorist attack (and even helping to identify one of the suspects) didn’t mean he wanted to give that up. His story and attitude are not only impressive, they’re inspiring. And so is director David Gordon Green’s no-nonsense but still emotionally gripping telling of this journey.