The Boston Marathon bombings near the finish line of the 2013 race turn personal in “Stronger.”
For those needing a refresher: Two homemade pressure-cooker bombs left by brothers Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev and Tamerlan Tsarnaev exploded 12 seconds apart, killing three cheering spectators. Hundreds more, including runners, were injured in the blasts, and 16 of the victims lost limbs. The memories remain achingly raw, and as this riveting and heartbreaking film demonstrates, they still carry unique cultural power.
In another reliably excellent performance, Jake Gyllenhaal plays one of those real-life victims, Jeff Bauman, whose legs were severed. A photo of Bauman being rushed away in a wheelchair by three rescuers became an iconic image of the attack. Bauman’s book about his recovery, “Stronger,” is the basis for the script, which was adapted by John Pollono and directed by David Gordon Green.
The film introduces us to Bauman before the incident, a 26-year-old Costco worker more interested in Boston’s baseball and hockey teams than the annual marathon. He takes a place near the end only to hold up a sign for one runner, his 25-year-old on-again, off-again girlfriend Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany).
Bauman is a charming spirit, able to sweet-talk his way out of scrapes with his supervisor at work and hold back his nagging mother (Miranda Richardson) in the small apartment they share. Gyllenhaal, with his hair curling long and his soft-eyed glance, presents him as a nice, everyday kid, a little adrift but on the way to a promising future.
This is essentially a story of recovery, with Bauman remaining amusingly (and seriously) flawed while he adjusts to a new life. His double amputation leaves him literally and metaphorically off balance. He’s not transformed overnight into a heroic figure. But he always does what he can, giving the bomb scene investigators their first solid lead to the terrorists from his hospital bed, and representing the city’s Boston Strong pride through publicity appearances.
He is as bad a boyfriend to Erin after the bombing as he was before. The question of whether they can reconcile leads to a dramatic climax finale that sets up one of the best-written exit lines I can remember.
Understandably as he follows his harrowing character arc, Gyllenhaal looks older, angrier and alienated. Without legs to hold him, every trip to the bathroom for Bauer could lead to a slip and hard landing on the floor. As it re-creates the monstrous act that pulled Bauman’s life apart, and follows him through the process of physical and psychological rehabilitation, it does not appear that the film altered Bauman’s story in any meaningful way, telling his experience in clear tones.
With Gyllenhaal in the lead, there’s no need for the filmmakers to convey added editorial opinion. This story honors the significance of the event, and its human repercussions, without melodramatic stagecraft.