It’s a strange cinematic coincidence, but the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings have proved fertile ground for two excellent recent films – first with Peter Berg’s nail-biting Patriots Day, and now with the smaller, more personal story of attack survivor Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) in Stronger. Powerfully emotional and warmly funny, David Gordon Green’s film is an upper-tier biopic anchored by a really terrific central performance from Gyllenhaal.
Standing at the marathon finish line holding a sign up for his on-again, off-again girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany), Jeff was right by one of the Tsarnaevs’ bombs when it went off, blowing off both his legs. Stronger follows his road to recovery, with wince-inducingly detailed medical procedures and an approach to its hero atypical for the genre.
Where we may have expected a hagiography for Bauman, in directly adapting Jeff’s own account of the time, Green and writer John Pollono take a far more nuanced and interesting approach. On top of the trauma and frustration brought about by his horrific injuries, Jeff is also a deeply flawed person. Before the attack, he was lazy, inconsiderate and often drunk, and he makes very few changes to himself after the incident, even as Erin moves in to help him get his life back together.
This is not to say he’s a bad guy (he’s got at least as many charms as problems); just that this is a truly three-dimensional character, whose depths and contradictions make his struggle far more heart-wrenching and compelling.
Bringing this all to life is an awards-worthy Gyllenhaal, whose wide, soulful eyes make crystal clear the difference between being strong and actually feeling strong in the wake of a disaster. It’s a very moving performance, never swamped by grief, but transmitting Bauman’s pain and joys with exceptional skill.
CAST: Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Miranda Richardson
DIRECTOR: David Gordon Green
WRITERS: John Pollono (screenplay); Jeff Bauman, Bret Witter (based on the book by)
SYNOPSIS: Stronger is the inspiring real-life story of Jeff Bauman, an ordinary man who captured the hearts of his city and the world to become a symbol of hope following the infamous 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.