Jake Gyllenhaal gives another of his virtuoso performances as Jeff Bauman, who lost his legs in the Boston Marathon bombing and struggled to overcome the tragedy and build a new life in the glare of publicity that followed. “Stronger,” which the star also co-produced, can’t help but follow a fairly familiar template, but adds some welcome wrinkles to it. Gyllenhaal’s commitment, astute direction by David Gordon Green, and some outstanding supporting performances elevate it beyond the ordinary.
The script by John Pollono, adapted from the book Bauman wrote with Bret Witter, begins with the explanation for his presence on the Boston sidewalk that day—he was there to support his long-time girlfriend Erin Hurley (Tatiana Mastany), who had recently broken up with him again. She was running in the race to raise money for the hospital where she worked, and he hoped his show of support might help effect a reconciliation (especially since he was skipping a Red Sox game to be there).
Green stages the actual explosions discreetly, from a distance (though later flashbacks will depict the scene more graphically, though also a bit surrealistically). The subsequent sessions in the hospital, on the other hand, are painfully realistic—not only in terms of Bauman’s initial treatment, but in the portrayal of his bickering, motor-mouthed family, headed by his alcoholic, manipulative mother Patty, whom Miranda Richardson plays with a ferocity that might make you think of Jacki Weaver. (Richardson is remarkable, but praise is also due to Clancy Brown as Jeff’s father and Lenny Clarke as his uncle.)
Bauman becomes a heroic figure, not only because he survives as a symbol of his beloved city’s strength under pressure, but because he has helped to identify the perpetrators. Yet from the beginning he shies from the spotlight, even when his mother tries to force him into it. (A session in which he’s persuaded to be taken onto the rink in his wheelchair at a Bruins hockey game to wave the team flag is something his nerves will barely allow.)
And while initially, with Erin’s help, Bauman commits himself to rehabilitation to overcome to some extent the obvious physical limitations he must live with everyday (elements that Green stages, and Gyllenhaal plays, with a startling degree of intimacy and immediacy), he gradually loses that drive, slipping back into his old life of nights out drinking beer with his buddies (Nate Richman and Richard Lane, Jr.) and neglecting Erin, though she moves in with him and they have sex. Gyllenhaal and Green give their all to a sequence in which Jeff and his friends go bonkers in a park and he winds up driving—badly, of course. (The scene is given a humorous twist, especially at the close, but it certainly captures Bauman’s desperation and desperation at that point.)
Bauman is brought back from the brink by two things. One is Erin’s announcement that she’s pregnant, which he at first reacts to with frenzied fear—a scene Gyllenhaal plays with almost excruciating honesty—but then comes to see as a responsibility he must take on. That realization comes after he bonds with Carlos Arredondo (Carlos Sanz), the man who gave him first aid after the bombings. Their conversation makes Bauman understand how much Carlos has lost irretrievably in his life and how he, by contrast, at least has the chance to recover some of what was taken from him. They appear together in an appearance on the pitcher’s mound at a Sox game that serves to mark Jeff’s acceptance of his condition and a determination not to let it stop him from living a full, rich life—in personal as well as public terms.
It’s easy to imagine how this story could have degenerated into uplifting telefilm-style obviousness, but although some traces of that inevitably remain, Gyllenhaal is so convincing—in terms of attitude as well as physicality—that he erases all doubt, while Mastany is equally fine as the supportive Erin and Green abets his star’s efforts to sidestep the pitfalls by bringing a strong dose of clear-eyed realism to the mix. Though those who don’t live there might find the Bostonian ambience to be laid on a bit thick, the city’s residents will probably find it pretty authentic, and Green’s ability to construct a fraught family environment as background to Bauman’s personal struggle helps his star immeasurably. Small details, like the truthfulness that Green and Danny McCarthy bring to the part played by the manger of the Costco at which Jeff worked, come through nicely as well. On the technical side, “Stronger” presents a gritty authenticity as well, with Stephen Carter’s production design and Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography unostentatiously convincing.
“Patriots Day,” the Peter-Berg-Mark Wahlberg procedural on the Marathon bombings, was a disappointment at the boxoffice. One hopes that this more intimate tale set against the background of the tragedy will not suffer a similar fate: even if it were less successful overall, Gyllenhaal’s performance alone would be worth the price of admission.