“Stronger” is the real-life story of Jeff Bauman, a native Bostonian who lost his legs in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and became a symbol of hope for the city in the trying time following. In this captivating and intensely sad film, director David Gordon Green (“Our Brand Is Crisis”) seamlessly explores Bauman’s deep internal struggle and his relationships with his family and his girlfriend, while also emphasizing the collective grief felt by the city of Boston. With deeply moving performances by Jake Gyllenhaal (“Okja”) and Tatiana Maslany (“Orphan Black”), “Stronger” moves slowly and powerfully. The film portrays love, adversity and the human condition in a wholly genuine and heart-wrenching story centered around two people’s devotion to each other.
Bauman’s story is masterfully expressed by Gyllenhaal, an actor who has proven time and again his incredible range and depth of emotion. While critical discourse questions the ability and morality of an able-bodied actor playing a disabled character, Gyllenhaal’s eloquent performance rewards the casting of a deeply interior actor rather than focusing on the ability of the actor’s body. As Bauman, Gyllenhaal communicates the physical trials of even the most mundane things after his double amputation, such as going to the bathroom and getting out of bed. His physicality as an actor is unbelievable; Gyllenhaal moves his body in a way that works to eliminate the distinction between his actual body and the one he portrays on screen. While this discrepancy is understandably problematic, it is emotional and convincing nonetheless. Gyllenhaal also portrays Bauman’s emotional turmoil, his surface-level reliance on humor in response to his condition in contention with a deeper interrogation of himself as a man.
The film not only centers around Bauman’s personal struggle following the Boston Marathon bombing, but also on his relationship with his girlfriend Erin Hurley (Maslany). Their on-again off-again relationship is complicated when Bauman shows up to support Hurley in the marathon, which inevitably ends traumatically for both of them. However, the trauma only further solidifies their personal connection as the two navigate love, understanding and selfishness. This relationship is the driving force of the film, deeply honest in its portrayal of human connection. Maslany is spectacular, expressing devotion and confusion in subtle and intertwined ways, exemplified in her consistent clashing with Bauman’s mother (Miranda Richardson, “Testament of Youth”). With her dynamic performance Maslany solidifies her place as a high caliber actor in tandem with Gyllenhaal.
The film’s ultimate strength lies in its avoidance of clichés in telling the Marathon bombing narrative. In other words, the film doesn’t over-dramatize the event and its aftermath. The bombing itself happens almost quietly, without jarring camera movements or suspenseful music; Green forgoes drama and instead relies on the audience’s common understanding of the gravity of the event. Moreover, the film does not shy away from painful but genuine moments in the narrative. One of the most memorable scenes in the film is the one in which the nurses change Bauman’s wound dressing, and he feels for the first time the excruciating pain of his amputated legs. This scene is long and straightforward and raw, and acutely honest. Due in large part to the writing based on Jeff Bauman’s own memoir, “Stronger” is distinguished by its ability to convey drama without dramatic tropes.
Finally, “Stronger” also challenges the survivor narrative, complicating the term “hero” and humanizing the process of dealing with trauma. One of the main threads of the film is the Bauman family’s effort to substantialize the city of Boston’s idolization of Bauman as a hero, transforming him into a symbol for Boston Strong. However, the film challenges this process and focuses on Bauman’s relationship with the word “hero,” his PTSD and his love for the city. Ultimately, “Stronger” explores the tensions involved in the commodification of trauma and the exploitative nature of turning Bauman into a symbol of hope, while simultaneously emphasizing the incredible importance of community in Boston and the collective bond shared by its people. Though layered in its portrayal of Boston Strong, the film is a testament to the collective strength of the city and the inspirational importance of Jeff Bauman.