Hot Take: The true-life tale of Jeff Bauman, one of the victims in the Boston Marathon bombing who lost both of his legs. Well told and anchored by an excellent performance of Jake Gyllenhaal.
Last year, the first movie about the Boston Marathon was released. Patriots Day starring Mark Wahlberg focused on the manhunt for the two bombers after the bombing. It was, as expected, a well done retelling of the work done by the FBI and Boston police to hunt down the men behind the 2013 bombing. This year, a second film about the bombing, Stronger, hit theaters and featured a much more personal retelling from the eyes of Jeff Bauman, one of the survivors of the bombing who lost both of his legs in the horrific explosion. The focus of the film is Bauman and his on-again-off-again girlfriend who Jeff went to see run the Marathon. It dives into the impact it had on Jeff’s life, Jeff’s family and everyone and everything around him. It’s inspirational yet never tries to make Bauman out to be a martyr and, thanks to an excellent performance from Jake Gyllenhaal, shows his growth from the experience but also the deep psychological toll the incident took on him.
The film opens with Bauman (Gyllenhaal) at work at Costco begging his boss to leave to watch the Red Sox. Permission granted, Bauman heads off to his local bar to hang with friends, say hi to his alcoholic mother Patty (Miranda Richardson) and runs into his ex-girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany). During the conversation with Erin, he learns that she is running in the Marathon and Jeff convinces the entire bar to donate money toward her run and promises to be at the finish line with a big sign. The day of the Marathon, Jeff shows up at the finish line to cheer Erin on with sign in hand and as she hits the final stretch, the bombs explode. After being rushed to the hospital, what’s left of Jeff’s legs are amputated. When he regains consciousness, he is able to give a description of one of the bombers which helps lead to the capture of that bomber a few days later.
Hailed as a hero and inspiration, it’s different behind the scenes of Jeff’s life where he struggles to maintain his drive to learn how to function without legs. Through his rehabilitation, things rekindle with Erin but his alcoholic mother is threatened by her presence and the two don’t get along well. Also, Jeff’s mother is obsessed with making sure everyone knows how much of a hero her son is and tries to book him for every public appearance despite Jeff’s desire to lay low.
The heart of Stronger is Maslany’s performance as Erin. While Jeff’s struggles are evident and brought to life effectively by Gyllenhaal, it’s Maslany who gives the movie something extra. The personal struggles for all involved are emotionally and mentally taxing and the more intimate, personal tragedy resonates a little deeper than last year’s Patriots Day which focused more on the coming together of a community rather than deep diving into the impact of the incident on personal lives.
While Stronger doesn’t do anything great, it does do a good job all the way around sharing Jeff’s story. It’s inspirational without sugar coating his difficulties and never makes it out to be easy for Jeff at any point. Told from his point of view as it is based on his autobiography, Jeff’s ability to overcome such a harrowing experience is moving. While September is still a little bit early for Oscar season, it’s possible that Gyllenhaal or Maslany could come up in the conversation when discussing acting nominations. Critically, the film is also receiving raves and while MHT gives it a thumbs up, it’s not necessarily in the top tier of films of 2017. That being said, Stronger is well worth the trip to the theaters as Bauman’s story is one worth taking in.
“Spoiler Free” Pros
- There’s Plenty of Boston Without Going Too Over the Top
“Boston Strong” was the tagline that came out of the Boston Marathon and there’s a lot of talk of Boston (and plenty of Boston accents) in the film. However, there’s a balance here and never does Bauman’s story take a back seat.
- Uplifting Without Being Overly Positive
One thing that really works well here is the fact that Bauman’s road to recovery isn’t perfect. Gyllenhaal’s performance shows all of Bauman’s flaws and the story is more human than most tales of recovery.
- A Breakout for Maslany
Best known for her role(s) in Orphan Black, Maslany generated a lot of buzz with her performance in Stronger. An Academy nomination seems like a real possibility for her.
“Spoiler Free” Cons
- “Not There”
Jeff spends a lot of time not present in the film. There are times where he even feels like a supporting character. It’s not a bad thing, necessarily, as tragedies affect more than the victim, usually, and this one is no exception. However, it could be something unexpected for a viewer wanting the story to revolve around it’s most obvious victim.