One of the most iconic pictures released after the Boston Marathon bombings on April 15, 2013, depicts an ash- and blood-streaked man being pushed away from the chaos in a wheelchair. That man was then-27-year-old Jeff Bauman, who was at the race to support his girlfriend, Erin. The movie Stronger is his story. The harrowing details of the bombing are not the focus of the film, instead, Stronger portrays Jeff’s complicated journey toward emotional and physical healing. Because of his proximity to bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev, both of Jeff’s legs were destroyed in the blast, and he suffered a double above-knee amputation.
In the film contrary to expectation, Jeff (played by Oscar nominee Jake Gyllenhaal) doesn’t cry or ask what happened when he eventually wakes up. He wordlessly requests a sheet of paper and then writes that he feels like “Lieutenant Dan,” a reference to a Forrest Gump character who also loses both legs. Jeff’s sense of humor makes him instantly likable and reflects his capacity for resilience. Later, when he informs his mother that Erin (played by Tatiana Maslany) will be moving in with them, he rejects her claim that the apartment is too small for three people by reminding her that it will only be “two and a half people!”
Unfortunately, Jeff’s blasé attitude doesn’t do him any favors when it comes to his physical recovery. He gets wasted with his mother and frequently skips physical therapy sessions. Jeff finally gets a wakeup call when Erin walks out on him, fed up with the fact that he “never shows up” for her. For the first time, Jeff then heeds his physical therapist’s advice and pours his heart into his training rather than just going through the motions. There seems to be an important universal message here: We have to want to recover from our setbacks – healing will not just magically befall us one day.
Jeff’s holistic healing is solidified when he finally meets with Carlos, a stranger who rushed to his aid when his legs were blown off. After learning that Carlos lost one son in the war and his another to suicide, Jeff appears shaken and humbled. Carlos reminds Jeff that pain can be overcome and life can be restored, thus becoming the hero to America’s hero.
While the overarching storyline is simple, Gyllenhaal and Maslany’s performances are what make the film noteworthy. Gyllenhaal transitions from screaming to sobbing with astounding ease, and he convincingly portrays a man who is haunted by the past and tired of being labeled a hero. Every situation brings the audience members to the edge of their seats, wondering whether Jeff will be silly or aloof or enraged at any given moment. His shifting moods invoke the audience’s sympathy for Erin, who stays by his side until she reaches her breaking point. Maslany beautifully conveys the tension simmering within Erin as she takes care of Jeff while her own obligations and personal life slowly unravel.
Some viewers might be disappointed at the lack of political and criminal insight in the film, but Stronger is ultimately intended as an inspirational story. In that respect, it hits the mark. The movie paints a picture of human resilience and gratitude despite the pain. Readers who are in the mood for a meaningful message can see Stronger in theaters or read Jeff Bauman’s memoir of the same name.