It was the most enduring human-interest story to emerge from the horrible rubble of the Boston Marathon bombing. Jeff Bauman, a salty Bostonian who worked the deli at the local Costco, lost both of his legs in the attack but, upon waking in the hospital, provided the FBI with valuable intel on one of the terrorists.
His mental, emotional and physical recovery—assisted by a renewal in his on-again, off-again relationship with girlfriend Erin—was exhaustively documented by a New York Times photographer, who won a Pulitzer for the series. Bauman became a symbol for resilience in the face of an unspeakable tragedy—the unwitting personification of the Boston Strong hashtag.
David Gordon Green’s “Stronger,” based on Bauman’s memoir of his rehabilitation, captures its protagonist’s lengthy struggle toward acceptance of the role society has ascribed him, and it’s an effectively grueling road. Jake Gyllenhaal embodies Bauman’s excruciating new reality with a mix of laborious movements and a glazed-over numbness, and Tatiana Maslany poignantly conveys Erin’s mixed emotions, her face a shifting portrait of anguish and guilt (as a runner in the marathon, she was the reason Jeff was there).
Screenwriter John Pollono selected some of the most authentic, raw and contrapuntal lines from Bauman’s memoir, and presumably created a few insights of his own. The first thing Bauman’s father, Jeff Sr. (Clancy Brown), says when he sees his comatose son is “I gotta get something to drink.” When Bauman wakes up, hours later, his best friend doesn’t sugarcoat the truth when he informs him that “your fuckin’ legs … they’re gone, bro.”
This admirable lack of sentiment carries the story through its tear-jerking first half, with Green matter-of-factly observing the daily indignities of an inchoate paraplegic—the helplessness, the constant falling down, the Sisyphean trudge of rehab. Going to the bathroom is difficult too, and Green shows us why. “Stronger” is the definition of a warts-and-all portrait.
Green and Gyllenhaal not only resist the temptation to sanctify Bauman—they present him as kind of a prick, a not very great man who had greatness thrust upon him. As a media desperate for a silver lining bombards him with interview requests and ceremonial appearances at Boston sporting events, and fans thank for “not letting the terrorists win,” he grows to reject this celebrity lionization, with its false pieties and re-traumatizing aftershocks.
This is all great material for a mature character study, which doubles as a rugged how-to manual for something that, hopefully, we’ll never have to endure. But at some point, as the movie’s slow burn of recovery ignites into histrionic flames, “Stronger” becomes curiously unmoving, and increasingly schematic. It is more and more apparent that a messy, complex life has been shaped into a straightforward redemption narrative, the desire to send us home with a warm, fuzzy feeling superseding the challenging veritas that preceded it. The dialogue, once sharp and evocative, becomes a parade of trailer-ready sound bites.
But I didn’t lead with these disappointing tonal shifts, and neither does “Stronger.” For most of its running time, it remains a worthy examination of the burden of transforming into a national hero when you’re just, as one character describes Bauman, “a chicken roaster from Costco.”
Stronger opens today (Sept. 22) at most area theaters.