Three died in the Boston Marathon Bombings of 15 April 2013 but Stronger is a story of survival. Whereas Patriots Day, earlier this year, dramatised the manhunt that immediately followed the two explosions, David Gordon Green’s tremendously understated film is concerned with the longer term aftermath and the process of picking up the pieces.
Based on the memoir of Jeff Bauman, written with Bret Witter, Stronger tells of how an unambitious and unreliable Costco worker would go onto inspire millions by virtue of having been in the wrong place at the wrong time. On that fateful day in Boston, Bauman (here, Jake Gyllenhaal) was at the heart of the incident and sustained irreparable injuries to his lower legs which would force doctors to amputate both, below the knees. In traditional cinematic terms, the Boston Marathon ought to have been grand finale of Jeff’s story; it was the moment in which he would win back the love of his life, Erin (Tatiana Maslany), greeting her as she crossed the finish line and undoing their rom-com friendly break up of the month before. Instead, the bomb played its cruel hand, landing Jeff in hospital and offering a plot more akin to Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick.
Stronger is at its most powerful in the opening third. It is here, before an almost scratological fascination with the practicalities of Jeff’s new lifestyle kicks in, that Green delivers raw emotion with masterful restraint. The bombs are captured in profound long shots, the fore-frame stealing the lens focus to enhance the impact and potent sense of shell-shock felt by all. As Jeff gradually succumbs to PTSD, symbolic links to the experience of warfare become increasingly clear and build to earned a grisly but earned flashback in the later stages on the film. Prior to this, however, Green holds back on graphic imagery to allow the story to be told through the performances his unanimously outstanding cast. So effective is Gyllenhaal in the film that it takes mere minutes for him to establish a fully-rounded take on the real Jeff Bauman. This is not just a performance of hounding emotional resonance but one of real physicality. Every wince of pain hits hard because we believe that he feels it. As does Maslany, in an equally terrific turn.
What’s most admirable here is just how investable and distinctly flawed, which is to say: human, these people are in the portrayals. This is of vital importance because, as the film shows, the reality of recovery is no Hollywood-ready ideal of inspiration but is harrowing and tough and utterly draining. It is the world that crowns Jeff a hero, whilst he asks simply why: ‘I’m a hero for standing there and getting my legs blown off?’ The trauma experienced by Bauman – presented through a sequence of true-to-life hospital sequences and phenomenal CGI – shatters his life but his personality and characteristics do not change; he is no more saintly after than before.
Dealing with this is the highly put upon Erin, who battles love with frustration and obligation: ‘He never shows up,’ she sobs, ‘I’m just fed up with it…and then he shows up’. Resentment is the film’s asset and it is, at times, a shame that Green hasn’t the total confidence to just go with that, instead of allowing his indie aesthetic to be suppressed by the more typical. Stronger can do better than its ill-fitting soundtrack and idealised sex scenes – which feel unfaithful to reality.
Delivering a career-peak Gyllenhaal in Stronger is the performance of the year so far. Indeed, it is Green’s outstanding cast and acknowledgement of pain that elevate the film to excellence. Cheating death does not make a man a hero but enduring the continuous physical and mental struggle makes him an inspiration.