Movie review: ‘Stronger’ explores the struggle of a survivor to reclaim his life
Ready or not, here comes another Boston Marathon-bombing drama — just about a year after Mark Wahlberg single-handedly made the city’s streets safe again in “Patriots Day.” And like that movie, “Stronger,” was filmed mostly in Boston, including Weymouth, Easton and Braintree.
What’s different is that instead of recreating the five-day manhunt depicted in “Patriots Day,” this new film — directed by North Carolinian David Gordon Green — focuses on survivor Jeff Bauman, a spectator cheering on his girlfriend near the finish line in 2013 when one of the two explosions took both his legs.
What ensues is Bauman’s long, courageous fight for recovery, first at Boston Medical Center and later at Spaulding Hospital. The movie makes clear his wishes to be left alone, but he nonetheless becomes one of the most recognizable and powerful symbols of Boston’s resilience. Bauman, played with aplomb by Jake Gyllenhaal, was the reluctant poster boy for “Boston Strong” and at moments Green can’t resist saturating the proceedings in an aura of reverence and artificial sentiment. It could easily be a Hallmark Channel movie, if not for the barrage of F-bombs that “Stronger” lazily uses to reinforce the stereotype that Bostonians are all wicked uncouth, R-dropping, beer-swilling, baseball-loving dolts. Raise your hand if you’re tired of seeing that characterization.
Love as redeemer of the human spirit (think “Rocky”) is hardly fresh, but that doesn’t stop Green and first-time screenwriter John Pollono (adapting Bauman’s best-selling memoir) from incorporating every trope in the misery-builds-character genre on their way to eventual uplift. “Stronger’ depicts the kind of story Hollywood loves and the film is riding solid award-season buzz after showing at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, considered a launch pad for Academy Award hopefuls — and this film feels like Oscar bait.
The depiction of Bauman’s emotional and physical recovery moves along methodically and mechanically, as he literally rises from the ashes, vows to walk again, and (spoiler alert) does with prosthetics. The film checks all the boxes — silent anguish, blood, sweat, tears, setback, internal struggle. It all just kind of sits there devoid of passion and urgency. The script doesn’t really go to the darkest places that it probably should have to really show Bauman’s struggle. What pulls you along is Gyllenhaal’s performance. You will follow him anywhere. He is equally adept in the physical demands of the role while also capturing Bauman’s roguish charm or quiet rage. From the scenes as a “chicken roaster” at the Costco deli, to doing shots at the local pub, to the squirm-inducing removal of his bandages to maneuvering the wheelchair, never once does Gyllenhaal’s portrayal ring false. Also, a shout out to a visual effects team that seamlessly creates the illusion that he has no legs.
Adding able support is Emmy-winner Tatiana Maslany (“Orphan Black”) as Bauman’s on-again-off-again girlfriend, Erin Hurley, who was running the marathon that tragic day. The film is as much hers as it is Gyllenhaal’s in its exploration of the couple’s already-tumultuous relationship being suddenly weighed down by guilt and obligation. That part is fascinating, but Green (“Pineapple Express”) only scratches the surface. Instead he turns his camera on Bauman’s drunken antics and his raucous friends and extended family (a la “The Fighter”) in an effort to provide comic relief. No mention is made, either, that the couple is divorced now, lest that fact ruin the happy ending.
Kudos, though, to Miranda Richardson, who swaps her proper British lilt for a pitch-perfect Bawston accent. Her chain-smoking Patty is a lush with no clue how to process her son’s new reality, yet she can’t help but revel in his newfound celebrity. She pushes him to do an interview with Oprah (he doesn’t), drop the puck at Bruins game, etc. It’s kind of sickening, and heartbreaking. “The whole world is watching you, kid,” Patty says. Then everyone drinks.
Green also does a nice job building tension between Patty and Erin, working toward an eventual throw down. Easton native and Thayer Academy graduate Nate Richman shines as “Big D,” Bauman’s cousin and best friend.
For all its depiction of human weakness, “Stronger” becomes a tribute to the indestructible human spirit, which should be enough to win over non-discriminating audiences.
— Dana Barbuto may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Miranda Richardson.
(R for for language throughout, some graphic injury images, and brief sexuality/nudity).