Less than five years removed from the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, Hollywood has decided that now is the time to relive the event and/or honor the people who were affected by it. Patriots Day, released earlier this year, overreached, trying to tell the story of the entire city. Stronger goes in the opposite direction, telling the story of one specific survivor, Jeff Bauman.
As presented in the film, Bauman (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) is a rough-around-the edges kind of guy, someone who screws up at work, drinks way too much, and is never really there for his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Erin (Tatiana Maslany). The one time he does show up for her just so happens to be when she runs the Boston Marathon. And he happens to stand next to one of the two bombs detonated near the finish line that fateful day.
The bomb obliterates the lower half of both of his legs, leaving him to face months of recovery with help from Erin and from his family. However, his family members, including his mom, Patti (Miranda Richardson), had been kind of a mess before he lost his legs, and they don’t improve much after the incident. Their relative lack of support puts Erin on an island with Bauman, who, as one could imagine, has a lot of trouble dealing with the aftermath of the bombing.
The traditional trajectory of a movie like this is that we meet our hero, who then gets knocked down a time or three, only to rise up due to sheer perseverance and possibly the help of someone who never leaves his side. Director David Gordon Green and writer John Pollono, working from Bauman’s book, seem uninterested in making Bauman into a traditional hero. In fact, they go so far in the opposite direction that it’s almost shocking.
Instead of appreciating Erin and other people trying to help him, Bauman lashes out on multiple occasions. It would be easy to chalk this up to the post-traumatic stress he’s enduring, but the manner in which it’s portrayed makes it seem more like a character flaw. Things reach a head during an ill-conceived drunk driving scene with Bauman at the wheel. The moment appears to be played for laughs, ending with a cop asking for Bauman’s autograph, with no apparent punishment coming.
Similar to Patriots Day, Green and Pollono have a lot of trouble figuring out the tone of the film. Bauman and his family are so aggressively “Boston” that it becomes ridiculous. The drinking, the accents, and the belligerent behavior are so constant that it’s impossible to take them seriously. The audience’s natural instinct is to root for Bauman and his family, but the storyline we’re presented makes it almost impossible to do so.
One could say that Green and Pollono are merely showing the people with warts and all, but the problem is that doesn’t make for a very good movie. It may be the truth, but it’s about as far from inspirational as you can get. It’s difficult to feel inspired when many of the characters are off-putting and uninteresting.
Gyllenhaal seems to specialize in characters with questionable morals, and Bauman certainly fits in with others he’s played. The most impressive part of the film, both technically and acting-wise, is presenting Gyllenhaal without legs. There’s not one moment you question that fact, and it’s due to both the CGI work and Gyllenhaal’s acting skills, which are second to none.
Also impressive are Richardson and Maslany. Richardson, an English actress who often plays upper crust English roles, absolutely disappears into the role of Patti. Maslany, an Emmy winner for playing multiple roles on Orphan Black, acquits herself well in her first major film role.
Despite some good acting, Stronger is the most feel-bad feel-good movie of the year. Jeff Bauman actually may be an inspiring figure, but this film does everything it can not to show it.