Stronger, a bio-pic about Jeff Bauman, who struggled back after losing his legs in the 2013 bombing at the Boston Marathon, is another example that Jake Gyllenhaal, who plays the reluctant real-life hero, is drawn to scripts that don’t sugar-coat or shine experiences. He clearly likes to portray characters, whether based in reality or fiction, that aren’t always likable or making the best choices. Even more interesting, the movie, which is directed by David Gordon Green, is based on the book Stronger, co-written by Bauman himself. The audience gets a candid, unflinching view of Bauman’s personal disaster, weakness, and reconstruction, both on the inside and out.
Jeff Bauman (Gyllenhaal) is unreliable. At least, that’s what the girl he recently broke up with uses as her reason for their separation. He never shows up, she says. To prove he can be depended upon, he promises to be at the finishing line when she runs the Boston Marathon. While waiting and cheering her on, he sees someone suspicious. The world explodes, and he finds himself in the hospital, where his brother informs him both his legs have been amputated.
No doubt Gyllenhaal will create awards buzz, especially since stories of heroism always capture the attention of the Academy, but he allows himself to be vulnerable, angry, terrified, and go through a believable character arc, made all the better knowing it is something close to true life. Tatiana Maslany plays Erin Hurley, Bauman’s ex-girlfriend who struggles with guilt from being the reason he was at the marathon in the first place, standing by him during his convalescence. She makes the transition to co-starring with an A-list actor ably, and anchors the ensemble of friends and family taking the difficult journey through Bauman’s physical rehabilitation and understandable bouts with depression and PTSD. She too may be recognized for her authentic, understated performance. Other character actors who memorably round out the cast are Miranda Richardson as Jeff’s mom, Patty, Clancy Brown as Big Jeff, his dad, and Carlos Sanz as Carlos, the man that dragged Jeff to safety just after the bombing. There’s lots of cursing, like the F word is said more often than please and thank you, but that’s Boston working-class for you, or at least that’s how Bauman and screenwriter Pollono would have us think.
There’s a particularly poignant scene between Jeff and Carlos, when they finally meet again after Jeff has started getting physically better, but is obviously not in a great psychological state. Carlos, it turns out, was there in the aftermath in honor of his sons, both of whom had passed away. One son was a marine who died in the line of duty, and his other son killed himself after losing his brother. It’s a turning point for Jeff, who is shown to have difficulty being viewed as a hero, or the ultimate example of “Boston strong”. Carlos’s struggles are as compelling as Jeff’s, and that’s the point. The challenges of loss and choosing to continue are seen through a variety of people represented in the film, which is its best quality. Bauman’s own journey includes some truly dark, ugly moments, as no doubt getting back to living after having your legs blown off must.
This is no shallow, feel-good story. Bauman finds his way forward, but the audience sees the experience isn’t just hard, it’s excruciating. Sometimes just choosing to get up another day is heroic.