Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhall) never set out to be a hero on April 15, 2013. He was merely trying to win back the heart of his girlfriend, Erin (Tatiana Maslany), at the conclusion of the Boston Marathon, which she was participating in. Long deemed by his ex-girlfriend to be someone "who doesn't show up", Jeff just wanted to be there and support Erin.
Then a bomb went off and changed their lives forever, in good ways and bad.
David Gordon Green's film, Stronger, based off a book written by Bauman and Brett Witter and adapted by John Pollano, is a relentlessly gritty biopic that doesn't pull a single punch. I loved how brave this film was in telling the story of Bauman's recovery from losing both his legs and being labeled a hero by the city of Boston and eventually, the world. The infamous picture of Carlos, the mysterious hero with a cowboy hat on, wheeling Bauman away from danger, placed a symbol on Jeff that he couldn't bear and wanted no part of initially.
Why were people approaching him in public and telling him he was the reason the terrorists didn't win? As Bauman points out, "they at least got on the scoreboard" with the bomb taking his legs. Green's film aptly blends small doses of humor and humanity into a tough story of a regular guy getting off the floor of pity of making a comeback.
In order for a film like this to register, the lead actor handling the role of Bauman has to care less about vanity and truly climb into the skin of this man. Thankfully, Jake Gyllenhaal took the job and fully immersed himself in the world of Bauman. The walk, the voice, and the affliction are all painted on Gyllenhaal's face throughout this movie, breathing energy into the film's goal. This is the true definition of an award caliber performance.
Since the filmmakers don't go all triumphant super-sap with the follow-through of this tale, Gyllenhaal is giving some less than glamorous scenes to compete and make authentic. Every leg of Bauman's recovery is covered here, from the fitting for new legs to the trials and tribulation that come with the challenge of learning to walk on metallic limbs. There are times where the words coming out of Bauman's mouth are mean and sinister, and Gyllenhaal breathes life into those moments. He's as brave of an actor as you will find these days, bumping shoulders with the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, and Miles Teller.
Maslany handles her first big Hollywood lead role well, finding balance on the wrecking ball that is Jeff and Erin's flight to hell and back. Most will know her from the Amazon series, Orphan Black, but she handles a different speed here as the woman who couldn't quit Jeff. The couple broke up a few times, but always found their way back to each other. How do you not forgive a guy who got blown up waiting for you? Maslany is impressive.
Clancy Brown and Lenny Clarke give fine supporting performances as the boisterous family men in Bauman's life, but Miranda Richardson puts in an Oscar worthy performance herself as Jeff mother, Patty. The elder woman is the sort of clingy mom whose boy can do no wrong and anyone who creates drama in his life-someone like Erin-is seen as a threat, not a virtue. Richardson makes you feel for a woman who loves her son and alcohol equally, simultaneously being destroyed by each every day. It's a heart wrenching performance that connects. Gyllenhaal, Maslany, and Richardson have some killer scenes together.
Stronger is a great film that has quietly flown under the radar due to other higher budget releases stacked around the fall release slate and its nonchalant manner of storytelling. Green doesn't overdo the bombing sequence, opting for taste over gratuity. The music is restrained and the editing allows the pace of the film to unfold at its own speed.
If you rush Stronger's tale, the climax of the film lacks the true power that it serves thanks to the performances and writing.
If you need one reason to see it, bet your hard earned cash on Gyllenhaal. In bold performances such as End of Watch, Prisoners, Nightcrawler, and now Stronger, the still young actor is becoming a renegade of his craft. Someone you can trust. If you still think of him as the earnest kid from October Sky, check him out here. He will knock you down with his work.
Jeff Bauman never set out to be a hero or symbol, but Stronger pays him the best tribute by showing the complete journey from regular guy to an embodiment of hope around the world.