Stronger isn’t the first movie about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing; Peter Berg’s slick, sprawling action drama Patriots Day beat it to the box office by nearly a year. But it doesn’t suffer for being second, because director David Gordon Green’s aim is so radically different than Berg’s: paring down a large-scale tragedy to the stark, often painfully intimate pinpoint of one survivor’s story. Jake Gyllenhaal takes on the real-life role of Jeff Bauman, a wise-cracking Beantown Everyguy who suddenly became a national symbol — not by choice — when he lost his legs at the finish line.
The type of hometown boy who begs off work early for Sox games and has his own lucky seat at the bar, Jeff is still pining for his on-and-off ex, Erin (the excellently understated Tatiana Maslany). She’s a steady, responsible health worker; he’s the clownish good-time guy she can’t really rely on but can’t quite quit either. ( “Whoever thought you’d end up in a torrid melodrama with a chicken roaster from Costco?” her sister asks wryly). But when Erin stops by his local looking for donations for her marathon run, Jeff sees a chance to prove he can be the kind of man she wants him to be. And so he turns up at the race with his hand-lettered sign and joins the celebratory hordes; a hooded figure jostles by him, his attention clearly focused elsewhere. Then comes the explosion, and the aftermath. “ Your f—in’ legs,” a rueful buddy tells him bluntly as he lays shell-shocked and intubated in a hospital bed. “They’re gone, bro.”
Bauman’s family, a rowdy pahk-the-cah wolf pack straight of out a Dennis Lehane novel, aren’t remotely prepared for the emotional and physical demands of his condition, least of all the blowsy barfly mother (British actress Miranda Richardson, bleached blond and surgically attached to her cigarettes) he shares a cramped, messy apartment with. Erin’s different, but there’s nothing easy about the blurred lines between the two of them either. What kind of clean slate has his accidental sacrifice earned him, and when does romantic love taper off to duty and pity?
Director Green (All the Real Girls, Pineapple Express) doesn’t gild the realities of Jeff’s struggle to come to terms with his radically altered life. For much of the movie he’s a mess — bailing on rehab sessions, baiting Erin into petty arguments, “driving” drunk with the help of a friend on the foot pedals. But Gyllenhaal gives such a powerfully lived-in performance that it’s hard not to follow him down into every moment: the awful instant a friendly encounter turns ugly at a pub; the terrifying flashbacks that jolt him as he’s wheeled out to salute the rapturous crowd at a hockey game; the debilitating efforts just to use the bathroom on his own. (Thankfully, there’s a thread of dark humor running through it all that leavens even some of the bleakest moments). In certain ways, Stronger is as broadly conventional as any Hollywood story of tragedy and triumph; some supporting characters are stock, and there’s never much doubt of the narrative’s long arc toward redemption. Still, there’s a raw, tangible humanity to nearly every scene that sets the film gratifyingly apart. Jeff might not fit into anyone’s glossy front-page idea of hero, but you never doubt for a moment that he’s real. A-