Based on Jeff Bauman's own book, written with the help of Bret Witter, "Stronger" details the devastating outcome for Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) following the horrific finish line bombing at the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. There to support his ex-girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany), a marathon participant, Jeff loses both legs as a result of those tragic explosions.
Bauman, 27, who works in the deli department at Costco, certainly isn't looking to become anyone's hero. He simply wants to impress Erin, hoping she will acknowledge his presence, holding the sign he had made for her. It was a common thread in their tenuous relationship --- Erin never feels Jeff is there for her. Now, he is facing a monumental crisis, and Jeff wants Erin to be there for him.
"Stronger" is directed with a deft touch by David Gordon Green, showcasing a moving, well-written adaptation by John Pollono, a Boston local. There are so many ways this story could have gone sideways --- too maudlin, too much raucous humor. Instead, Pollono's screenplay provides an honest account of this young man's travails based on his own words.
Gyllenhaal is being touted as an early Oscar contender, and it's not difficult to see why. His portrayal of Bauman is a tour-de-force example of just the right amount of heartbreak and resilience. He never overplays the trials and tribulations associated with the great loss of one's legs. Bauman's daily struggles are laid out bare, and his smallest achievements are well-documented.
There are many memorable scenes in "Stronger", some of which are not very flattering of Bauman, but they tell the real story. Others, like his experience of throwing out the first pitch at a Boston Red Sox game, and the subsequent heartrending moments he shares with fans under the stadium, are incredibly moving.
A great deal of pressure was placed upon Bauman by his family to subject himself to "hero" appearances. His mother, Patty (Miranda Richardson), in particular, was insistent that Jeff rack up these experiences At one point, she pleads with Jeff to meet Oprah, which he declines much to her great distress.
But, for me, the most depressing scene takes place in a restaurant the night Jeff is supposed to meet Erin. Instead, he stays with his Uncle Bob (Lenny Clarke) and his two best friends, Sully (Richard Lane Jr.) and Big D (Nate Richman). As he wheels himself to the bar to order more drinks, two jackasses query Jeff about how much he was paid to lose his legs in the "hoax" that was the Boston Marathon bombings. Yes, this happened --- and what is wrong with the people who actually believe this stuff? Do they not hear themselves? Of course, a fight ensues, but the damage to Jeff has already been done.
The entire cast of "Stronger" is amazingly adept. Richardson is almost unrecognizable --- but boy, is she terrific. These are blue-collar people, who have endured all that life has thrown at them. Patty is a pistol --- a hard-drinking, take-no-prisoners kind of a gal. And Richardson is brilliant in her portrayal. She must certainly be considered for Best Actress in a Supporting Role come Oscar season.
"Stronger" is a realistic portrait of a young man who, because of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, is thrust into hero status against his wishes. He becomes the symbol of hope for Boston --- and the world --- not of his choosing. But he weathers the storm, coming out stronger on the other side.
Opinion: Strong See It Now!
"Stronger", which is based on the true story of 2013 Boston Marathon bombing victim Jeff Bauman, is anchored by two stellar performances. Jake Gyllenhaal renders an Oscar-worthy turn as the 27-year-old Chelmsford, Mass. native who lost both legs in the blast. Emmy winner Tatiana Maslany is equally impassioned as Erin Hurley, his on-again, off-again girlfriend.
Like "Patriots Day", the 2016 film about this horrific event, there is the anticipatory dread knowing the explosion is coming --- we just don't know when. The Mark Wahlberg film focused on the hunt for the perpetrators, and their eventual killing and capture. "Stronger" keeps us riveted with Bauman's torturous rehabilitation --- mentally as well as physically --- and the toll it takes on everyone around him.
We empathize with Jeff as he painstakingly tries to adapt to his new prosthetic legs. The depiction of Bauman with a double amputation above the knees is essentially the same special effect we've seen before. Audiences were amazed when Gary Sinise's character in "Forrest Gump" appeared to have no lower legs, and the same is true for Jake Gyllenhaal's character in "Stronger".
There are some truly uplifting moments, none more so than his wheelchair appearance at Fenway Park to throw out the first pitch for his beloved Red Sox. He is joined on the mound by Boston Hall of Fame pitcher Pedro Martinez, along with a man named Carlos (played by Carlos Sanz) who was Jeff's first responder at the marathon when the bomb exploded. After the pitch, Jeff is wheeled under the Fenway stands, where he is greeted by dozens of fans who share their own stories of grief with him.
Earlier, Carlos and Jeff meet for the first time at a restaurant where Carlos shares why he happened to be at the finish line. Jeff stationed himself there so he could root for Erin as she completed her 26-mile run. What Jeff learns at this meeting is as heartbreakingly real as any moment in the film.
Gyllenhaal is superb. When he finds out Erin is pregnant, his reaction alone could merit an Academy nomination. Furthermore, the movie goes into realistic detail about things most of us take for granted. It doesn't gloss over the requisite problems a double leg amputee must confront, like bathing and normal bathroom functions. Getting in and out of a car is a major accomplishment.
Miranda Richardson and the reliable veteran Clancy Brown play Jeff's divorced parents, each actor displaying the appropriate initial shock and concern when they first learn of their son's condition. Richardson put on more than a few pounds for the role of Patty Bauman, and her personal sacrifice lends that much more credibility as one of Jeff's primary supporters. Her performance is extraordinary.
As I sat through "Stronger", which included more than a couple of heavy emotional moments for me as a Boston native, one thought kept recurring, similar to my reaction while watching "Patriot Games". How can people be so cowardly as to hurt innocent victims --- irrevocably changing their lives, and those of family and friends --- just to advance their own agendas? While "Stronger" is an exceptional story, it's a travesty that it had to be told.
Opinion: See It Now!