Surviving a Bombing and Trying to Be Stronger
Living through a life-changing event is just one part of getting back to everyday existence. Overcoming a lack of motivation proves to be an even bigger challenge for a survivor of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing in the movie Stronger. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Jeff Bauman, a Costco worker who tended to be a bit of a slacker. Even when superiors could have forced him to address his issues, they simply let him off with a warning. Jeff's ways even extended to his personal life, particularly in his relationship with Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany), who'd broken up with him three times due to his lack of reliability. When she comes into a bar where Jeff is to raise money to run in the Boston Marathon, he turns on the charm tries to get another reconciliation. She dismisses reconciliation, but appreciates Jeff's support. Unlike previous promises he'd made, Jeff keeps his word and waits for her at the finish line.
Jeff, though,was too close to a homemade bomb that detonated and left him severely injured. He eventually recovers, but loses both legs above the knees. One conscious, he lets a friend know he can identify a bomber, which leads to a showdown between the authorities and the suspects. Jeff, for his efforts, is hailed as a hero. Jeff and Erin reconcile, and she moves into Jeff's apartment. Jeff also makes a number of TV and public appearances, many of which are coordinated by his mother, Patty (Miranda Richardson). Jeff never feels at ease with all of this attention, even when he's invited to attend games of the teams he loves. Even as he starts rehab, Jeff falls into his slacker habits, which include plenty of drinking. This eventually grows intolerable for Erin, who needs for Jeff to be more reliable than he's ever been.
Stronger is based on the real-life account Bauman co-wrote with Bret Witter. Stronger is not a typical survivor's story, for Jeff often admits his own shortcomings. He also doesn't like being considered a hero or being the center of attention. Even as the sports teams he follows fanatically laud him for his efforts, he's unhappy having himself associated with the "Boston Strong" campaign. Jeff struggles to deal with his injuries in the public eye. He also struggles to overcome the lazy habits that had caused Erin to leave. The movie is full of Boston accents and a hard-edged, working class attitude. Director David Gordon Green, whose attempts at comedy have not impressed me (especially The Sitter), hits the mark with his look at a flawed man who struggles with the spotlight and his overblown role as some sort of a hero.
Both Gyllenhaal and Maslany shine in the lead roles who decide to ride their emotional rollercoaster one more time, hoping that something different happens. Gyllenhaal, as Jeff, knows he will never be the same - and not just in a physical sense. He struggles to overcome old habits - and doesn't always succeed. At the beginning of the movie, Jeff sweet talks his way out of an overtime assignment caused by his carelessness so he won't miss going to a Red Sox game. Later, he constantly arrives late for therapy instead of working harder to be able to walk on prosthetic legs. Jeff then gets away with things because others perceive him as a hero - even the police who stop him for erratic driving. Maslany, who's best known for her work on the series Orphan Black, shows a woman conflicted. On one hand, Erin has had plenty of problems with Jeff. On the other hand, he was there for her on a day that turned out badly. The day changed them, but the old problems and misgivings would return. Richardson, as Patty, shows the traits that Jeff embodied, and sees her son's incident as a potential cash cow. I also liked Clancy Brown as Jeff's dad, Jeff. Sr., who wonders if his son's accident will affect his ability to return to work, despite assurances that Costco will hold the young man's job.
Stronger is an effective portrait of a man who distances himself from his renown, yet embraces it in some ways as well. A bombing may have altered Jeff Bauman's focus for a while, but he eventually reverted to his old ways. He clearly wants to make himself stronger for the people who matter to him. In order to achieve that, Jeff must first deal with the issues that make him personally weak.
On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Stronger 3.5 stars. Finding real strength is easier said than done.