Some of the best heroes are those who clash with the greatest of adversities and emerge as the victor. These people strive to thrive and supersede the label of “victim” or “survivor.” They weather the highs and lows of their journey towards balance. The most astonishing fact, however, is that many of these heroes live ordinary lives and hold ordinary jobs.
Director David Gordon Green’s film “Stronger,” based on the book by Bret Witter and Jeff Bauman of the same name, recounts the true events of Bauman’s life after he was wounded in the Boston Marathon bombing April 15, 2013.
Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) works in the meat department at a local Costco and lives with his mother, Patty (Miranda Richardson). After work the day prior to the bombing, Jeff goes to a bar where he runs into his ex-girlfriend, Erin (Tatiana Maslany). Erin, a hospital administrator, is running in the Boston Marathon and is coming to the bar to collect donations for the hospital. Jeff promises Erin that he will be waiting for her at the finish line with a sign.
The following day, Erin approaches the finish line and watches both bombs explode. Unbeknownst to her, Jeff, who was standing next to one of the bombs, loses both of his legs above the knee. Jeff is able to provide a description of bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to the FBI, and he soon leaves the hospital, having reconnected with Erin. Back home, Jeff tries to come to grips with his new life, including being a subject of the public spotlight.
One of the movie’s strengths is that it honestly presents a full spectrum of behaviors and emotions with Jeff’s situation. Upon leaving the hospital, he is greeted by the media throng and impulsively gives a tentative thumbs-up as his mind struggles to react “normally.” The weight of his new life seems to suffocate him as he sits alone in his bathtub after arriving back home.
Jeff’s family constantly inundates him with the praise of “hero” which causes him to ponder the veracity of the honor. Jeff sinks into complacency, and he tries to anesthetize himself with alcohol. A public appearance at a Bruins game elicits memories of his horrible experience, which causes him to inadvertently lash out at Erin.
I appreciated seeing that the film made a conscious effort to focus on the human connection of the story. When Jeff and Erin lock eyes in plain view, with the first removal of Jeff’s medical dressings confined to the hazy background, the pair’s fixed gaze ratchets up the emotional palpability of the scene. Additionally, the sporadic humor, such as when Jeff refers to himself as Lieutenant Dan from “Forrest Gump,” adds to the film’s believability.
Gyllenhaal is one of the most talented actors in Hollywood, and his portrayal of Bauman adds to his credible list of roles to date. Gyllenhaal brings an “everyman” quality to the role that is accentuated by the ever-popular Bostonian accent.
Maslany, of “Orphan Black” recognition, gives an important performance as Gyllenhaal’s long-suffering, on-again-off-again girlfriend. She commits a quiet devotion to Gyllenhaal, which is severely tested and pushed to the brink by his inconsistent behavior. Maslany effectively complements Gyllenhaal’s instability with confident assuredness.
After Jeff throws out the first pitch at the Red Sox game, a man comes up to relate a personal story to him. He tells Jeff that his brother was a Marine who was killed by an IED, and says Jeff’s pitch showed such strength. I guess throwing a baseball is the American way of showing sheer resiliency in the face of adversity.