Unvarnished memoir of the Boston bombings trades exploitation for emotion
Directed by David Gordon Green
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Miranda Richardson
The problem with ripping stories straight from the headlines is that you run the risk of being exploitative, of molding a narrative to your own ends before it’s had the opportunity to shape itself organically. A lot of stories have a very long cooling off period. (“Too soon!”) Making a dramatization of the 9/11 attacks in their immediate aftermath would have been crass and premature. Wait a couple decades, though, and you can crank out all the horrible Charlie Sheen/Whoopi Goldberg movies about the date you want. In 2013, by way of example, America endured another terrorist attack—this one at the Boston Marathon, which killed 3 and injured 264. Last year, we got the Mark Wahlberg vehicle Patriots Day—a populist celebration of the heroism of uniformed personnel and everyday citizens that invariably arises in such situations. Though sensitive, the film fell back on easy uplift and patriotic slogans.
Now comes Stronger, yet another inspired-
The film centers on real-life dude Jeff Bauman (played here by Jake Gyllenhaal, who looks eerily similar to the subject at hand). Jeff’s a perfectly ordinary Boston loser, happy to roast chickens all day at Costco and go home to a beer and a Red Sox game. As our story starts, Jeff’s girlfriend, Erin (Tatiana Maslany from “Orphan Black”), has broken up with him for the third time. In her late-20s now, she’s getting tired of Jeff’s high school style and basic lack of ambition. But Erin’s the kind of gal who makes Jeff want to be a better man. She’s running in the upcoming Boston Marathon, for example, and Jeff promises to be there at the finish line cheering her on. That turns out to be a poor choice for Jeff. He ends up bumping into one of the infamous bombers and losing his legs in the ensuing blast on that fateful day.
An actual photograph of a dazed and bloody Jeff Bauman being hauled into an ambulance became front-page news and an enduring symbol of the tragic attack. In the hospital, despite his crippling injuries, Jeff helps identify Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to police. This, of course, makes him a certified hero to his fellow Bostonians. Released from the hospital after weeks of painful surgery, however, Jeff is confronted by a different city, festooned with “Boston Strong” banners. “What does that even mean?” wonders Jeff.
Jeff returns to the tiny apartment he shares with his boozy mom (Brit actress Miranda Richardson in a transformative role) and struggles to get around in his wheelchair. Motivated equally by love and guilt, Erin tries her best to help out. Initially, Erin is the most interesting character on screen, and Maslany grapples heroically with a constantly shifting landscape of emotions. Jeff only showed up at the Marathon because of her. For once in his life he did something responsible, and was punished for it. Erin knows Jeff’s life-altering injuries aren’t really her fault, but deep down she can’t help but feel responsible. Over time, the two drift back into couplehood, but Erin still finds herself at odds with Jeff’s family—most of whom seem to now regard Jeff as some sort of Golden Ticket, netting them enthusiastic cheers on the streets and free box seats at the hockey stadium.
As the narrative progresses and Jeff sets out on the long, hard road of rehabilitation, his psychological troubles begin bubbling to the surface. For starters he’s quietly dealing with PTSD over the bombings—a fact that his beer-drinking, sports-loving, working-class Bostonian personality can’t even recognize. Compounding the problem is the fact that Jeff has become a symbol. He’s the famous survivor showing all of Boston how to be strong. A parade of television interviews and patriotic rallies putting him up on a pedestal only increases the pressure on the young man, who has no idea how to react to a public that is alternately terrified and gung ho for revenge.
Stronger wisely chooses to say next to nothing about the terrorists themselves. The Tsarnaev brothers are never mentioned by name, and the ongoing story of the bombing is glimpsed only in background television reports. This is not a docudrama about the events of the day. It’s the story of how tragedy impacts real human beings. Jeff Bauman isn’t—and isn’t portrayed as—some admirable hero overcoming the odds, defying the un-American terrorists and triumphantly learning to walk again on artificial limbs. It would have been incredibly easy, however, to make that exact movie. Kudos to Green and his talented cast for taking the rawer, realer and more difficult route.
Gyllenhaal does fantastic, subtle work—his feelings rarely bubbling up in explosive “actorly” moments. But you understand the emotional war that’s raging in his head with every tiny flinch, every quiet acquiescence to his domineering family’s whims, every stammering conversation with a fellow Bostonian equally traumatized by recent events. He’s matched, beat-for-beat by Maslany, who continues to be a welcome presence on screens big and small. It’s through their hard-fought chemistry that Stronger evolves into a cynically hearted, teary eyed romance.
Though the film ends on its most traditional (one might even acquiesce to “inspirational”) note, it never feels expected or predictable. Stronger is a refreshingly down-to-earth look at recent, real-world horrors that is neither “too soon!” nor too manipulative. And it serves as a lesson on how to deal with this sort of touchy, au currant subject. Whoever’s out there making the Pulse nightclub shooting movie—and someone surely is—pay attention.