When a person is held up as a symbol, does anyone stop to think how that individual responds to that responsibility?
Take Jeff Bauman, for instance. He was standing at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon to cheer on his off-again, on-again girlfriend, Erin. Suddenly, a terrorist bombing dramatically changes Bauman’s life. He simply is no longer a blue-collar worker at a Boston-area Costco.
The blast cost Bauman his legs, and, because of an iconic photo of him at the site, he is elevated to a worldwide inspirational figure. Also, despite his injuries, he is able to give authorities a description of the bomber. But how does that obligation weigh on a man who does not consider himself a hero — just someone in the right place but at the wrong time.
That is the basic question and underlying strength of “Stronger,” which tells the story of Bauman dealing with the trauma, his new-found fame, his recovery and the psychological scars inflicted by the attack.
As skillfully portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal, Bauman is a quiet, irresponsible kind of guy, who — though in his late 20s — still lives at home with his mother. He often is late for work, appointments or dates. He enjoys hanging out at the neighborhood bar, drinking with his friends and rooting for the Red Sox.
All that changes after the explosion. The photo brings him unwanted attention, which is exploited by his boisterous, working-class family, who uses the global attention foisted on Bauman as reflected glory on themselves. His smothering, alcoholic mother — a finely etched performance by Miranda Richardson, which recalls a similar turn by Melissa Leo in “The Fighter” — continually rolls out Bauman at public events not so much to inspire him or others, but to stand in the shadow of his spotlight.
Gyllenhaal’s performance is what gives “Stronger” its strength. His eyes stand out — they are the mirror to what is churning inside Bauman. He looks bewildered and confused — almost a deer-in-the-headlights panic — as he finds himself the center of unwanted attention. He cannot grasp why people want to meet him, cheer for him or shake his hand. Gyllenhaal uncomfortably wears Bauman’s unsolicited fame. It’s a mantle he wants to shed as quickly as possible. Gyllenhaal’s Bauman does not see himself as a hero. He can’t understand why strangers are lauding him. He feels undeserving of praise for just standing at the finish line. His touching, vulnerable performance lifts the movie over some of its rough patches.
Tatiana Maslany’s Erin is a patient, compassionate young woman who loves Jake despite his faults — and his mother — with whom she continually clashes. Maslany endows Erin with a sense of responsibility and loyalty that is pushed to the breaking point.
“Stronger” is the latest in a long string of movies in which stars portray regular people slammed by tragedy. But, unlike the majority of those other movies, director David Gordon Green and screenwriter John Pollono — adapting Bauman’s book — emphasizes Bauman’s emotional battle rather than the physical healing process. This approach details Bauman’s true heroics and his recovery from those scars only he can feel.
I am a member of the Indiana Film Journalists Association. My reviews appear at ReelBob (reelbob.com) and Rottentomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com). I also review Blu-rays and DVDs. I can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ReelBobBloom. Links to my reviews can be found on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn.