The gap between real life event and movie of the real life event has got remarkably small. There’s probably a very good sociological article to be written about why that’s happened, why we’re less “precious” about recent tragedies, but this isn’t that. Nor is it a kneejerk thing where we blame social media / smartphones / Millenials. It’s a mere observation because, basically, as good as Stronger is in places, there’s still an element of “1980s TV movie” here.
The tragedy in question here is the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, as seen from the position of Jeff Bauman, who lost both legs in the incident.
Played by Jake Gyllenhaal in customary likeable manner, Bauman is a pretty straightforward, slightly shambolic, average guy, thrown into the most unusual and traumatic of circumstances. Aware that he’s been a less-than-brilliant partner to his on-off girlfriend Erin (Maslany), he’s eager to make amends and plans to surprise her at the Marathon finish line, with a homemade banner, in an attempt to win her over and show his dependability. Instead, he’s left maimed and they’re thrown back together, with an uncertain future ahead of them, potentially based in love, but possibly also guilt.
The road to recovery is similarly rocky. Bauman is celebrated as a hero, both for his injuries and for providing the description that helped catch the bombers, but is not cut from that sort of cloth. As a man who’s been used to drinking his problems away, there’s no instant Damascene conversion to all American hero, or even the perfect patient. This is a man struggling to come to terms with his new reality, the public’s perception of him, AND the fragility of his relationship, and it’s to director David Gordon Green’s credit – and Bauman himself, who’s frank memoir this film is based on – that the emotional centre of the film comes from such very human emotions and traits: just because he’s lost his legs doesn’t stop Jeff from being an asshole from time to time. This gives Stronger a sense of steel and reality, when it could so easily have descended into mawkishness.
As well as Erin, Jeff’s support network is his blue-collar Bostonian family. If you’ve visited the city, conversed with locals in certain bars, or listened in, unavoidably, to loud conversations on the “T”, you’ll know what to expect. This is not a family given to sensitivity and understanding. This is a family that calls a spade a big fucking shovel, broaches no nonsense and remains fiercely loyal even as they’re beating the crap out of each other. Like Jeff, these are not saints. These are real people also coming to terms with tragedy and celebrity. And, ruling them all is Miranda Richardson as Jeff’s mother Patty, the sort of hard-drinking mother hen you would never want to cross, in a phenomenal performance that deserved more award recognition than it received.
There is some sentimentality here but, for the most part, Stronger tempers such moments with dark humour and painful honesty. Gyllenhaal is, of course, terrific and it’s great to see Maslany on the big screen. Like the film as a whole, they bring a greater sense of nuance and reality than you have any right to expect. All told, Stronger is a surprisingly good watch.
EXTRAS: The behind-the-scenes featurette Faith, Hope and Love: Becoming Stronger (29:25), is which documents both the real life story of Jeff Bauman and the making of the film.