Directed by: David Gordon Green | 118 minutes | biography, drama | Actors: Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Miranda Richardson, Richard Lane Jr., Nate Richman, Lenny Clarke, Patty O’Neil, Clancy Brown, Kate Fitzgerald, Danny McCarthy, Frankie Shaw, Carlos Sanz, Michelle Forziati, Sean McGuirk, Karen Scalia , Judith McIntyre, Dr. Jeffrey Kalish, Cassandra Cato Louis
Jeff Bauman became an unwilling hero on April 15, 2013. The Boston supermarket worker was one of 264 people injured in the attack during the Boston Marathon. Three people were killed. The attack was perpetrated by two Chechen brothers, Muslim extremists who had emigrated to the United States more than a decade earlier and had only recently been radicalized. The older of the two was killed in a firefight three days later, his younger brother was arrested the same day by the police and is now in prison in ‘Death Row’. In 2016, the events in Boston were filmed in Peter Berg’s drama film ‘Patriot’s Day’, starring Mark Wahlberg (Boston born and raised), Kevin Bacon, John Goodman and JK Simmons. That film focuses mainly on the manhunt that the police made for the perpetrators. ‘Stronger’ (2017) by director David Gordon Green takes the same dramatic event as its starting point, but tells the story from the perspective of Baumann, who was not only a victim, but also played a crucial role in identifying the perpetrators.
We get to know Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) as a sloth and a wimp. He is already 26 but still lives in an apartment with his mother. He has no ambitions, because he has been working at Costco’s for years and he prefers not to go the extra mile. He spends his free hours in the pub (which applies to his entire family, by the way). The only thing he’s hot for are the Boston Red Sox. And Erin (Tatiana Maslany) of course, his ex-girlfriend who dumped him because he doesn’t want to make anything out of his life, but still has a soft spot for him. When Erin announces that she will be competing in the Boston Marathon to raise money for the hospital where she works, Jeff hopes to win some money by passing the cap around the pub. He also promises – finally – to encourage her. A promise he keeps. He even made a banner. But just before Erin rushes past, a bomb goes off. The perpetrator was standing right in front of Jef in the audience.
When he comes to, he appears not to have fared well. Jeff has lost both legs. A difficult time begins, in which he has to come to terms with his loss – and the trauma of the attack – and to deal with his limitation. His family – mother Patty (Miranda Richardson) first – sees an excellent opportunity to cheer Jeff up, especially when he proves to be of great value to the police thanks to his extensive description of the perpetrator. Jeff is portrayed as a hero, nicknamed ‘Boston Strong’ and becoming a symbol of the city’s unity, resilience and tenacity. But Jeff definitely doesn’t feel like a hero. Why would he be? Because he lost his legs? Because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time? Does that make you a hero? So while he is invited to all sorts of ceremonies, he becomes more and more estranged from himself. The only one who seems to understand him somewhat is Erin. The two grow closer and closer to each other. Or is she doing it because she feels guilty? If she hadn’t participated in the marathon, he would never have been there and now he still had his legs…
The story of ‘Stronger’ is based on Jeff Bauman’s memoir of the same name. The approach is not what preceded an attack, but precisely how the victims fared afterwards. In which the heroism – which you usually find very thick in American-made films where a ‘beaten man’ scrambles on top of it again – is for once not saccharine but pungent and unruly. Jeff’s family is full of boozers, screamers, know-it-alls, cocky pushers and attention grabbers. And Jeff can do something about it himself. That raw edge to the characters is also reflected in the story. So after the first night in his own bed, Jeff clatters hard on the floor, thunders off the toilet, and Erin finds him dead drunk, bathed in his own feces, in the bath. When his mother (wonderful role by Miranda Richardson) casually announces to him that Oprah will come by in a few days to talk to ‘America’s new hero’, that’s enough. Jeff is seen as a hero, but he definitely doesn’t feel that way.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays a strong role, proving once again how versatile he is. Physically the role demands a lot from him, but Gyllenhaal is convincing from the first to the last minute. Although Jeff is an unsavory bear at times, we still hold him close to our hearts and that is definitely Gyllenhaal’s credit. He receives pleasant response from Tatiana Maslany, who portrays Erin in a sober and self-assured way. Unfortunately, David Gordon Green doesn’t continue that pleasant contrarianism all the way to the end, so that in the last half hour the film falls back to the ‘cheesy’ heroic epic we already feared. Fortunately, at least eighty of the almost one hundred and twenty minutes are just as headstrong as Jeff’s family.