We’ve all seen movies based on tragic real-life events before, and for the most part, they tend to follow the same A-B-C plot. Depth of character is usually non-existent, and the audience becomes nothing more than rubberneckers at the scene of the accident.
Not so with Stronger, which carves its own path through the emotional and physical wreckage of the ghastly bombings at the 2013 Boston Marathon. Jake Gyllenhaal plays real-life victim Jeff Bauman, a survivor of the bombing who you may remember from photos — he was the man pictured being wheeled away from the explosion site, his body covered in ash and blood. Bauman ultimately lost both of his legs in the bombings.
The movie follows Bauman as he tries to readjust to life post-bombing, and at times is absolutely heart-wrenching. Stronger is refreshing because it is raw, and it refuses to be swallowed by Americana, patriotic bombast or “us vs. them.” Instead, it’s a story of survival, determination and courage, portrayed without the typical spotlight-seeking of the leading actors.
Think Gyllenhaal will get an Oscar nomination for this?
It would be surprising if he didn’t. Gyllenhaal has a way of completely sinking into his roles, almost as if he becomes that person (at least temporarily). As a result, there’s no need for over-the-top theatrics or scenery-chewing. There are only one or two instances of Gyllenhaal’s Bauman even raising his voice. Needless to say, each of those times is an emotional breaking point for the character. You’re invested in Bauman, you want him to succeed, and for that, Gyllenhaal will be on that Oscars red carpet in early March — most likely accompanied by Bauman.
What about the supporting cast?
Canadian actor Tatiana Maslany plays Bauman’s love interest, Erin Hurley, and her screen time isn’t even close to Gyllenhaal’s (obviously). When she’s onscreen she’s a stoic figure, not putting up with Bauman’s attitude when he sinks into despair and suffers the effects of PTSD. There’s something so endearing about Maslany, and she’s perfect in this supporting role.
A shout-out must be given to Miranda Richardson, who plays Bauman’s mom, Patty. Depicted as a tragic figure, Patty has a drinking problem but would do anything for her son. At times funny and other times sad, Patty is crucial to the film and most likely, Bauman’s real-life survival.
How does the movie depict the bombing itself?
Thankfully, the bombing is but a blip on the movie’s radar. Rather than assaulting the audience with constant footage — since, really, we’re all familiar with what happened — the bombing looms large over the proceedings as each character comes to terms with their new life. When Gyllenhaal’s Bauman comes to terms with what happened, the movie swings back to the bombing in harrowing detail, but only for a brief vignette of ash, terror, sirens and confusion. It is effective, capturing the spontaneous horror thrust upon innocent people.
Isn’t this kind of movie usually filled with patriotism?
Oh yes, that’s usually a given, particularly when America is the victim. In perhaps the most refreshing element of the movie, Gyllenhaal’s Bauman questions the merits of post-bombing slogan “Boston Strong,” and reacts angrily when people call him a hero. He doesn’t see himself that way (until the end of the film), instead seeing himself as merely someone in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Stronger is about the tragedy and the people impacted by the bombing, and it’s not cheapened by seas of waving American flags and blind patriotism.
So what’s the bottom line?
The movie is a pleasant surprise, not necessarily “enjoyable” in the traditional sense because of its subject matter, but definitely a heartwarming, inspiring look at a man whose life changed forever that day. Stronger is one of the better real-life stories put to film in recent memory, and Gyllenhaal nails the role without completely overwhelming it.