Stronger is the title of Jeff Bauman’s bestselling memoir about his experience as a survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing, and also of David Gordon Green’s fine new film adaptation. It is also a knowing riff on “Boston Strong,” a call for local unity and an assertion of hometown pride that rose from the ashes of that 2013 tragedy to become a T-shirt slogan, a hashtag and a worldwide rallying cry.
But even the most inspiring mantra can falter under the weight of tragedy, especially if it is invoked too often in an unexamined, uncritical spirit. It’s a difficult truth that this movie’s shrewd, sensitive retelling, centered on Jake Gyllenhaal’s fully inhabited performance in the lead role, comprehends with a quiet fury that few uplift-chasing dramas manage to muster.
As we follow Jeff through the horror of losing his legs in the explosion and then spending months learning to walk again with prosthetic limbs, the chorus of “Boston Strong” seems to pelt him from all sides. Words that are meant to soothe and encourage soon take on an empty, platitudinous air, not so much honoring as trivializing his suffering - a suffering that those noisily cheering him on can scarcely begin to understand.
One of the best things about Stronger, which Green directed from a script by John Pollono, is that it doesn’t shy away from, much less attempt to stifle, the anger, despair and terrible loneliness that Bauman experienced during his long, painful rehabilitation. The movie is a straightforward tale of survival and recovery, but its grave respect for the unique extremity of its protagonist’s ordeal cancels out any impulse toward exploitation. It doesn’t make the mistake of assuming that your tears are its natural entitlement, which is precisely why you might find yourself shedding a few before it’s over.
Mine admittedly started flowing early, not long after Jeff, a Costco employee in his 20s, tries to win back his on-and-off girlfriend, Erin Hurley (the superb Tatiana Maslany), by greeting her at the finish line of the marathon she’s running. Green dramatizes what happens next with remarkable discretion. The two explosions that ring out are staged from a careful distance; an up-close view of the carnage will be withheld for maximum impact later, as well as a soon-to-be-famous photograph of Jeff being wheeled from the scene by a good Samaritan in a cowboy hat. When we see Jeff again, unconscious in his hospital bed, he has already undergone an abovethe-knee double amputation.
The most startling image in a movie otherwise photographed with gray-toned, no-frills intimacy keeps Jeff’s lower body in the background as the bandages come slowly and painfully off. His and Erin’s faces remain firmly in the foreground, and what passes between them is a wordless, wrenching affirmation of love, devastation and need. In one shot, the movie has laid out its purpose in stark visual terms: This will be an exploration of grievous physical trauma, yes, but it will be a love story and a drama of psychological endurance. There is a lot that Jeff will have to endure, from the indignity of needing help to use the bathroom to the agony of physical therapy. There are endless people hoping to get their picture taken with him and applauding him for not “letting the terrorists win” - a truthful assessment insofar as Jeff’s eyewitness testimony helps the authorities capture one of the suspected bombers, but also a statement that rings increasingly hollow the more he hears it.
Gyllenhaal’s performances in films such as Nightcrawler have scarcely lacked for physical intensity. In Stronger, his on-screen disability is achieved with a seamless mix of prosthetics and visual effects, and his acting strives for, and achieves, a similar invisibility. It’s one of the actor’s most restrained, affecting performances. But Stronger is itself made of stronger stuff than that, and you can feel the integrity in its modesty of scale, its refusal of cheap catharsis, and its awareness that even its hard-won conclusion is just one early milestone for a man with a long way to go. In the end, the movie doesn’t misuse Bauman’s story or abuse his natural Everyman appeal by suggesting that either his tragedy or his triumph belongs to anyone but himself.
Los Angeles Times (TNS)