“STRONGER” — 3 stars — Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Miranda Richardson, Carlos Sanz, Nate Richman; R (language throughout, some graphic injury images and brief sexuality/nudity); in general release
As an “inspiring true story” of a person overcoming a physical disability, “Stronger” isn’t all that unique. Rather, director David Gordon Green’s story of Boston Marathon bombing survivor Jeff Bauman resonates for the way it explores how its protagonist deals with a public that suddenly calls him a hero.
When we meet Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), he’s a humble everyman, to put it kindly. He wrestles with a modest job in a Boston-area Costco and spends most of his free time obsessing over the Red Sox at the local bar with his blue-collar friends and family. Bauman has a kind nature but is a bit of a slacker, which keeps sabotaging his on-again, off-again relationship with a local girl named Erin (Tatiana Maslany).
As the film opens, Bauman’s status with Erin is set to “off,” so in a feat of unprecedented selflessness, he decides to sacrifice a Red Sox game in order to support her as she participates in that year’s Boston Marathon. He raises funds for her at the local bar, makes her a custom sign on posterboard and arrives dutifully at the finish line, just in time to see a suspicious character drop a backpack on the sidewalk.
Initially, Green keeps the violence of the bombings at a distance. The camera sees the explosion a hundred yards away, from Erin’s perspective coming down the home stretch. Suddenly we are in the hospital with Bauman and his family, where, once he comes out of his coma, he quickly alerts the FBI that he can ID the bomber.
The episode creates an interesting tie-in to “Patriot’s Day,” Peter Berg’s film from earlier this year that showed the manhunt for the brothers responsible for the bombings. But “Stronger” stays with Bauman, who loses both of his legs just above the knee and must press forward into an uncertain future.
The content that follows should feel familiar to anyone who has seen a similar film about a protagonist facing such a sudden life-changing adversity. Bauman struggles to cope with his physical limitations and lashes out against the people who love him enough to try to help him. His dynamic with Erin is more unique, since she now has to decide whether this turn of events is enough to justify continuing a relationship that might have been finished otherwise. (Their post-bombing attempt to reconcile is the source of the film's sexual content.)
Gyllenhaal is more than up for his challenging role, and Green effectively combines his performance with special effects that seamlessly work Bauman’s injuries onto the screen without making anything look forced or out of place. But “Stronger’s” greatest strength is in the way it explores a different dynamic to Bauman’s situation: coming to grips with the fact that the public has now made him the heroic face of the tragedy.
As Bauman shows up to wave a ceremonial flag at a Boston Bruins game and interacts with people who recognize him everywhere he goes, he wrestles with post-traumatic stress disorder and reviles against an unconditional love he feels he doesn’t deserve. It is here, later in the film, that flashbacks take us to the scene of the tragedy, and we get a more clear and graphic understanding of what happened. We also learn about the unique story of Carlos (Carlos Sanz), who helped Bauman on the scene, which eventually becomes the emotional capstone of the film.
In that sense, “Stronger” is both an inspirational film and a kind of unexpected hero’s journey that suggests sometimes physical limitations aren’t the toughest obstacles to overcome.
“Stronger” is rated R for language throughout, some graphic injury images and brief sexuality/nudity; running time: 116 minutes.