April 15, 2013 is a date that many Americans remember. At approximately 3pm two bombs detonated at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three and injuring hundreds of people. One of the most famous images from that day is one of a young man in a wheelchair, being assisted by a man in a cowboy hat.
That young man was Jeff Bauman, who had waited for his girlfriend Erin Hurley at the finish line, cheering for her. He got caught in one of the explosions, and, as a result, lost his legs from mid-thigh downwards.
Bauman wrote about that fateful day and the aftermath of the bombing in his memoir Stronger, which is the basis of the film with the same name. Stronger, directed by David Gordon Green, follows the story of how Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal) experienced the bombing, from seeing one of the bombers to realizing what had happened and being helped by Carlos Arrendo (Carlos Sanz), but also how he came to terms with his new situation.
After waking up in the hospital to the news of having amputated both his legs at the knee, Jeff is forced to adapt to this new reality. That means living with his overbearing but irresponsible mother Patty (Miranda Richardson), finding a new normal with on-again-off-again girlfriend Erin (Tatiana Maslany), and recovering from the trauma he experienced, both physically and mentally.
Jeff, while being celebrated as a hero and an icon for strength and American resilience, suffers from severe PTSD, which prevents him from truly filling the role that the public has pushed him in. What makes Jeff such an enticing character in the film is the fact that he is not a hero, he is a man with flaws and faults, that at times continues to act selfishly, and without complete disregard of how his words and actions affect others. Encouraged by his family he appears in public several times, which results in nervous breakdowns and anxiety attacks, from which even Erin can barely talk him down.
Stronger is a film about the tough way to recovery that Bauman faced after the tragic events of April 2013, and how it not only affected him, but also the people around him. His loved ones have to make sacrifices in the wake of the bombing as well, which adds to Bauman’s feeling of guilt and hopelessness. Ultimately, the movie shows how much human beings can endure, and that while we suffer through hardships, we do not have to do so alone – it’s okay not to be okay.
Jake Gyllenhaal is at his absolute best. He is impressive as Jeff Bauman, and makes the audience feel a massive range of emotions – from the terror, the panic he must have felt immediately after the explosion, surrounded by blood and gore to the crushing sadness he must have gone through after he woke up in the hospital. Gyllenhaal gives what I would label his strongest performance to date (no pun intended) in a role that truly highlights his enormous talent.
However, he is not the only talented actor in the film. If you are familiar with Tatiana Maslany’s former projects, you are well aware that the woman is an absolute all-rounder and there’s no doubt she can play any role that is given to her. It therefore comes as no surprise that she proves equal to Gyllenhaal and carries the film alongside him. Her portrayal as Hurley tugs at your heart-strings; whether she feels responsible for Jeff’s loss, or questions their future together, Maslany is convincing and powerful.
Stronger, all in all, should not be considered a film about loss and terror, but rather a film about how love and patience can help you heal, even after the most disastrous events of your life. Rarely has a movie proven to be so thoroughly heart-breaking, as well as inspiring.
Stronger was screened at the London Film Festival 2017, and is currently playing in theatres in the USA, with a UK release scheduled for December 2017.