In the past year we’ve had two movies focusing on the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing. Peter Berg’s masterful Patriots Day (click here for review) gave a macro view of the event and the manhunt for the bombers. Stronger serves as a companion film, focusing not so much on the bombing, but on the effect it had on the lives of one of the victims: Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal). Unflinching in its look at the price of recovery and the struggle toward redemption, Stronger sometimes errs on the side of making its subjects so “human” that the audience loses sympathy. Ultimately, though Stronger’s subjects and the film itself hit their stride and the lasting feeling is one of inspiration.
Jeff Bauman was an unlikely and reluctant symbol of “Boston Strong” after the bombing at the 2013 marathon. Waiting at the finish line with a big sign to try to impress and win back his on-again/off-again girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany), Bauman was standing directly next to one of the two bombs that were detonated. The blast left him a double amputee, though upon waking in the hospital, he was able to write to family that he had seen the bomber. His description was instrumental in identifying the terrorists made him an instant celebrity in Boston.
Stronger is based on Bauman’s book and he’s given a writing credit on the film, so I can only say that he was extremely honest in how he felt post-amputation, and brutal regarding his depictions of his rather horrid family. With the exception of Erin, there really isn’t a sympathetic character to grasp onto until late in the film. Bauman didn’t ask to be a celebrity, and rather than embracing the “Boston Strong” spirit that he was made the face of, he shunned the spotlight unless forced into it by his family. His mother (Miranda Richardson) is obviously proud of her son, but it soon becomes almost a vicarious celebrity experience for her. In addition to her alcoholism and general grating personality, the fact that having her son’s legs blown off seems like the best thing that ever happened to her, makes it extremely hard not to loathe her.
Jeff quickly sinks into depression, missing rehab appointments, and generally relying on Erin and his mother to do everything for him. Jake Gyllenhaal has a pretty difficult character to play and to play in such a way that the audience doesn’t completely lose hope for Jeff or turn on him when he’s such a jerk to Erin. Tatiana Maslany, who just finished one of the most impressive acting turns I’ve ever seen in the 50 episodes of Orphan Black, is the standout of the picture. She’s the anchor for Jeff and for the audience.
It takes Erin walking away for Jeff to finally get his act together, and the last half-hour of the picture is inspiring, leading to Bauman throwing out the first pitch at Fenway for the Red Sox. The picture is framed as a love story of sorts between Erin and Jeff, and it’s probably a lot more effective if you don’t know that they divorced (something left out of the film’s upbeat coda), but after having sat through two hours of a snapshot of their relationship, it’s hardly surprising. Stronger eventually becomes an inspiring film, but it’s not one you’re likely to revisit. I give it kudos for its stark depiction of exactly what it means to have your legs taken from you, but I think the biggest takeaway from the film is that Tatiana Maslany is a superstar and hopefully she’ll continue to get film roles as good as the television ones (she played the five main characters and over a dozen others on Orphan Black) for which she received an Emmy.