Jeff Bauman was watching the 2013 Boston Marathon when a bomb exploded near him. He had both legs amputated above the knee, and while fighting through subsequent physical and emotional challenges, the 27-year-old working-class guy became the public face of the city’s perseverance following the terrorist attack.
David Gordon Green’s bio-pic Stronger retells this story, and its title, poster and trailer suggest a standard inspirational genre pic, complete with music cues, one-the-nose dialogue and glossied-up characters. Instead, the film is a quieter, moodier character study that downplays the headline events and the gym training montage in favor of small scenes that examine how a traumatic event emotionally rips through individuals and families with no less impact than a nail bomb.
Stronger is really about PTSD, and even more so, about not having the skills to even know how to cope with it. Pre-bomb, Jeff (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an immature goofball, living with his overbearing, boozy mom (Miranda Richardson) and failing to commit to his off-and-on girlfriend (Tatiana Maslany). All three sides of this triangle need to line up right for Jeff to heal. Yet, in one scene after another, Jeff and his family can’t articulate their pain, anger and fear. The unsaid is frantically covered up with noise, as they hurl jokey insults at each other and get another round of drinks.
The film also interrogates our collective demand, post-9/11, to make heroes of anybody upon whom headline-grabbing misfortune falls. “I’m not a hero,” Jeff protests. “I was just standing there.” Nonetheless, the jittery town pours its anxiety into Jeff as its totem of reassurance. To us, being asked to wave a ceremonial flag before the Bruins’ Stanley Cup game seems like fun. But here, Green shoots it like a nightmare, with close-ups of Jeff’s haunted, frightened face and hunched shoulders intercut with the braying maw of the crowd demanding “Boston strong.”
Stronger is Jeff’s specific story, but it could be anybody else’s who’s working through a trauma. It’s still inspirational, but does a better job than most Hollywood bio-pics of depicting the smaller, but no less difficult, emotional steps that make up a comeback.__