Stronger is the true story of Jeff Bauman, who lost both of his legs in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings and inadvertently became a symbol of hope and heroism for the city.
The film opens with Jeff (Jake Gyllenhaal), a typical working-class Bostonian who is fanatical about the Red Sox and perfectly content to spend his time at home or drinking in the local pub surrounded by his boisterous family. Uncharacteristically on the day of the Boston Marathon, he decides to forgo watching his beloved baseball team and surprise his on-and-off-again girlfriend, Erin (Tatiana Maslany), at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. But tragedy strikes when he is the victim of a terrorist attack, resulting with both of his legs being amputated. While he is lying in hospital, a photo of him being rescued from the rubble catapults him into the spotlight, and he unwittingly becomes the face of the ‘Boston Strong’ message of unity and survival which sweeps across the city.
The film however focuses on the personal journey of Jeff and Erin as they struggle to deal with his rehabilitation and newly acquired celebrity status. Adding to the drama are Jeff’s strong willed, opinionated family, who all have conflicting agendas, and his own silent battle with post-traumatic stress as flashbacks of the event begin to affect him.
While Stronger is marketed as an uplifting story of an ordinary man overcoming adversity, to its credit, it is much more complex than that. It sensitively explores the difficulties faced by Jeff when he finds himself a symbol of bravery for his survival of the terrorist attack, while he views himself as a victim entirely reliant on others. The film feels authentic and its power comes from concentrating entirely on one flawed person’s struggle, and including only essential details about the attack and its wider outcomes.
The story is based on Jeff Bauman’s New York Times bestselling book that he co-wrote with Bret Witter, but differs from many other biopics with its refreshing honesty. Like the book, the story doesn’t hide its protagonist’s flaws and feels authentic, with an open examination of the challenges of being intimate with a partner and the physical and emotional strain of mastering prosthetics. Jeff is flawed and often immature, but these imperfections help the audience to connect with him on his journey.
The film is also refreshingly free of any heavy American political messages and rather, in its place it examines the intimate relationships between Jeff and his flawed, but well meaning family and their response to the terrorist attack with its personal effects on their lives.
Filmmaker David Gordon Green avoids many of the clichés of this genre, by focusing on the small details of adjusting to life with a disability and the pain of the protagonist accepting his limitations. His decision to cast the real hospital staff to play the same roles as when treating Jeff adds another layer of authenticity to the film. He also chose to show very little of the actual terrorist attack; instead he slowly lets the simplicity of emotional scenes like Jeff’s bandages being removed, convey the true effects of this tragedy.
As both producer and the lead, Jake Gyllenhaal delivers a powerful, often-silent performance depicting Jeff as a man who is struggling to adjust to his new life and disability. His suffering with PTSD mixed with his battle to come to terms with the fact that he is seen as an American hero, feels just as effective as his portrayal of Jeff adjusting to simple tasks like going to bathroom and getting dressed.
However it is Tatiana Maslany as Jeff’s girlfriend Erin who really stands out in this film. She brilliantly illustrates the complex relationship between her and Jeff when she finds herself in the dual role of both his lover and carer. It is a multifaceted role that she conveys excellently as she struggles with her feelings of guilt and responsibility for Jeff, while having to deal with his repeated unreliability and immaturity as a boyfriend.
Stronger is an inspirational film filled with warmth and humanity, which is refreshingly grounded in reality. In the same way that Jeff Bauman battled to accept that he was a ‘hero’, the filmmakers have ensured that he must earn this title from the audience too.
If you are looking for a well-acted and powerful drama, Stronger is a rewarding and emotional film that is well worth seeking out.
Both Jeff Bauman and Jake Gyllenhaal threw out the ceremonial first pitch at Fenway Park for the Marathon Monday game of April 18, 2016.