The word “hero” gets tossed around a lot these days. It often carries with it a certain prefix — super — to the detriment of heroism everywhere. But what does it mean, “hero?” Is it an ugly American obsession, or an inescapably human desire to see goodness made real?
In “Stronger,” David Gordon Green’s powerful new film, Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) finds these questions unexpectedly thrust into his life after losing his legs in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. As he struggles to recover and restore some sense of normality to his life in the aftermath, Bauman is continually surprised, even troubled, when called a hero.
The film begins the day before the bombing, when Jeff gets off work at Costco and heads to a bar to watch the Red Sox. There, he sees his ex-girlfriend, Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany), raising money for the hospital she’s sponsoring for running the marathon the next day. Jeff takes up her collection box, telling everyone to “give up a round of Stellas” and donate to a good cause. He’s charming and perfectly at ease, in a goofy sort of way.
At first, it’s hard to imagine that he and Erin could be engaged in a “torrid melodrama,” amiable as Jeff is, but we soon learn that they have broken up and gotten back together three times already. Jeff sees their current separation as just another twist in their storyline. He tells Erin he’ll be waiting at the finish line for her, bearing a sign and a smile. Erin has her doubts.
And, though he does show up the next day, standing at the finish line and holding a poster resplendent in marker-drawn lettering, Erin doesn’t see him. She sees only a burst of smoke and flame a mile ahead of her on one side of the street.
From there, the film does not cut to Jeff lying bloody and delirious on the street, as you may expect. Green and screenwriter John Pollono aren’t interested in the shock-and-awe effect that comes with raw images of gore and terror, and it’s to their credit that they never accede to the xenophobia that often seeps into stories of terrorism. They aim to tell a different story focused on the hard realities of trauma and recovery and the troubled but loving relationship that gets Jeff through.
This guiding ethos is captured in a shot at the hospital, when Jeff gets the dressings on his amputated limbs changed for the first time. Green positions his camera at an angle, so that Jeff’s face is on one side of the frame and Erin’s the other as she does her best to comfort him, while his legs rest blurry in the background — detached, foreign. It’s at once intimate and pregnant with meaning, sensitive to the complex struggle that lies before him.
Even within all this solemnity, the film maintains a warm sense of humor. Much of this comes from Jeff and his family, a bunch of blunt, testy, working-class Bostonians who talk loud and laugh louder. In a few scenes, “Stronger” even moves into “Jackass” territory, as Jeff and his brothers drunkenly mine his disability for physical comedy.
His family is not without problems, though. Jeff lives with his mother, Patty (Miranda Richardson), in a small apartment, and the two of them have an uneasy relationship. They both drink too much, and Patty is more excited by Jeff’s newfound celebrity than he is. When Jeff refuses an Oprah interview, Patty gets upset — “I don’t know where I’d be without Oprah,” she says.
Erin ends up being the one reliable adult in the room — cleaning up after Jeff and his mother, making sure that Jeff gets to therapy and protecting him from people who want to turn him into nothing but a spectacle. Maslany is superb in the role and brings a firm resolve to the character. She is compassionate, and maybe too giving, but she expects Jeff to work just as hard as she does on his recovery. When she finally snaps, you can sense the deep well of feeling behind her fury and frustration. Maslany knows how to shout without making it feel like empty Oscar-baiting.
The same can be said of her on-screen partner. Though the film has been justly criticized for hiring an able-bodied actor to play Bauman, Gyllenhaal’s performance is a wonder. His physical commitment is complete, and he has an assured grasp of Jeff’s vast emotional range. With pain behind his eyes but a strength behind his smile, Gyllenhaal shows trauma to be an unwieldy beast that can crop up where you least expect it and hurt the people you need the most.
The middle of the film drags as it sinks deeper into Bauman’s depression, and the end occasionally slips into mawkishly inspirational territory, where “Go Sox!” becomes a stirring rallying cry, and a we-can-do-this voiceover is leaned on a bit too heavily. But the bulk of the film maintains an exquisitely clear-eyed approach, from the finely-tuned performances to Green’s clean, thoughtful compositions. “Stronger” treats its subject with the requisite sincerity and artistry to achieve something rare among inspirational dramas — it inspires.