From 9/11 to Benghazi and most in between, Hollywood is the perpetually churning stomach inside which America digests its national disasters and tragedies both historic and recent. So it’s little surprise that the industry is taking a second bite of the cherry, after a clunky attempt at dramatising the Boston Marathon bombing in Patriots Day, which compressed the event into a one-dimensional and Wahlberg-fuelled celebration of police heroism.
Stronger goes in the other direction. The real-life story of Jeff Bauman, a survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing who lost both of his legs in the attack, it avoids an overly deferential portrayal of its protagonist in favour of a more grounded and personal tale of a slow and sometimes ugly recovery. Lacking any appetite for vengeance and ambivalent to the politics of terrorism, Jeff finds the phrase “Boston Strong” bemusing and responds with cutting incredulity when strangers approach him for selfies.
The script is based on Bauman’s own memoirs, and so director David Allen Green is able to wield a bigger dramatic stick around sensitive subjects like Jeff’s alcoholic mother and his own problems with drink and drugs. In doing so Green sidesteps genre clichés and consciously pushes the bombing and its perpetrators right out of the frame – neither is ever shown or named – instead he lingers on the more uncomfortable aspects of an everyday Joe becoming a double amputee and an unwitting icon.
Jake Gyllenhaal is on career-high, awards-worthy form as Jeff, whose on-again, off-again relationship with Erin (Tatiana Maslany) is jolted into an uncomfortable new dynamic by his injuries. Where a less courageous dramatisation would shy away from a scene in which the dressing on Jeff’s legs are being painfully and slowly replaced, or when Jeff has to use a toilet for the first time, in Stronger these drawn out moments of physical vulnerability become the focus, and are where all the best acting between the pair is found.
There is some concession to sentimentality in the end, as Stronger settles into more familiar romance territory later on, and then goes all in on becoming the embodiment of the kind of motivational poster you see hanging up in an HR department. (In reality Jeff and Erin eventually split, but I suppose there’s only so much realism a paying audience is willing to take.) Still, Stronger is as human and honest as this kind of film ever gets, and marks one of Gyllenhaal's best performances yet.