When the movie “Patriots Day,” about the investigation surrounding the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, was released late last year, people were quietly asking, “Isn’t it too soon?” Now, with “Stronger,” with the same event as one of its subjects, coming out, even more people are asking, “Isn’t it too soon after that other movie?”
No. This is a completely different movie. “Patriots Day” was an action-thriller about the bombings, and about the cops hunting down and closing in on the perpetrators. “Stronger” does include the horrific incident, but it happens approximately 10 minutes in, then almost immediately shifts into a contemplative and inspirational study about determination and triumph of the spirit.
It homes in on a man named Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), a normal, everyday guy, a Costco worker who was having ups and downs in a relationship with his girlfriend Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany), and who tried to better their situation by showing up to cheer her on at the finish line when she was running the marathon. Which is right where the first of two bombs went off, costing him both of his legs.
The movie stays with Jeff, and the tightknit group of people around him, and how they all try to regain some semblance of normalcy after the tragedy that resulted in his double, above-the-knee amputation. With all of that at its center, you’d expect this to be all dark and grim. And, yes, there is some of that, but the script by first-time feature writer and busy actor John Pollono (Tyler on “This Is Us”) is also filled with pathos and just the right touches of humor — most of those going into the dialogue for and performance of Miranda Richardson, who plays Patty, Bauman’s rude, crude, trash-talking townie mom.
The film works well at keeping its focus on Bauman and his struggles, depending more on Gyllenhaal’s performance than any visual effects work (though the sight of what’s left of him is the best work done in that area since Gary Sinise “lost his legs” in “Forrest Gump”). It’s Gyllenhaal’s face that gives the film its power, often shown in close-up, more often latching onto the lost look in his eyes. He plays a lot of the part in silence, wondering why, after a long, excruciating rehabilitation and a return home in a wheelchair, the media and public start referring to him as a hero, when he knows he’s really only a victim. The actor’s skill allows him to be just as convincing when Jeff feels completely out of place being honored on the ice at a Boston Bruins game or throwing out the first pitch at Fenway Park, as when a tide inside him turns, and you get the first hint that sheer fortitude is going get him over the impossible mountain that’s been put before him.
The only times the script slips up a bit is when it resorts, just briefly, to a little overwrought melodrama, some of it in quick, garish flashbacks to Jeff right after the bomb exploded, some of it concerning the relationship between Jeff and Erin, or the one between Jeff and his short-tempered, often drunk, often selfish family, many members of whom are portrayed as being oblivious to what Jeff is going through. “Haven’t WE gone through enough, already?” complains one of them.
But these few glitches are thankfully overshadowed by the film’s positive outlook. You know that, no matter how much trial and tribulation he goes through, Jeff is never going to give up. Midway through, he says to Erin, “I just want to walk,” then adds, “I won’t let this hold me down.” Now, four years after the event that did knock and hold him down, Jeff Bauman, wearing state-of-the-art prosthetic legs, is back up and walking around the streets of Boston.
“Stronger” opens on Sept. 22.
— Ed Symkus writes about movies for More Content Now. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Written by John Pollono; directed by David Gordon Green
With Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Miranda Richardson