Let’s get this out of the way immediately: David Gordon Green’s Stronger is nothing like last year’s Patriot’s Day, a Mark Wahlberg film about the Boston Marathon bombing and the subsequent manhunt. I actually liked parts of that movie while recognizing that it was too soon, too exploitative, and exceedingly problematic in parts.
Stronger is not about the Boston Marathon bombing. It’s about the relationship between Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany) and Jeff Bauman (Jake Gyllenhaal), a guy who lost both of his legs from the knee down in the Boston Marathon bombing. This movie is about Bauman’s struggle to maintain that relationship while dealing with depression, PTSD, and the pressure of being a symbol of Boston’s resilience in the wake of the bombing. This movie is about tragedy and how it can bring people closer together, but also how it can pull them apart.
It’s an inspiring movie and one that earns its inspiring moments, but it’s also a believably frustrating one, because from the second scene in the movie, viewers know exactly how it will turn out, and that’s too its credit. Stronger doesn’t try to hide the flaws of Jeff Bauman, who is a 20-something, heavy-drinking fuck-up whose relationship with Erin Hurley was hardly on solid footing before he lost both his legs. While the incident brought them closer together, it could not ultimately repair the problems in their relationship
(Real-Life SPOILERS: The movie doesn’t say as much, but Bauman and Hurley divorced earlier this year, and knowing that in advance actually improves the movie because we know that Bauman is not torn down in order to be built back up to suit a formula. He was actually a fuck-up in real life. Knowing about the divorce colors our impression of the characters; they’re human, and while a a post-tragedy epiphany might strengthen their resolve, it doesn’t change who they are at a fundamental level.)
Bauman is a blue-collar guy, a Boston sports fan, a Chelmsford kid working a minimum wage job at Costco and living with his mother. He and Hurley are on a break — one of several — when the Boston Marathon arrives. Bauman — in an effort to prove that he “shows up” when it matters and regain Hurley’s trust — goes up to the Marathon to see Hurley finish the race, only she never finishes. A mile before crossing the finish line, two explosions go off, one of which takes Bauman’s legs off. He’s saved by Carlos Arredondo, a guy handing out American flags at the finish line (this movie is very good; a movie about Carlos Arredondo — a man who became a peace activist after his oldest son died in battle in Afghanistan and his youngest son committed suicide after battling with depression might have been an even better movie).
Hurley feels responsible for Bauman’s injuries, and while that guilt might have kept her in Bauman’s orbit, it wasn’t what brought them back together. They genuinely love each other, but their entire relationship is fraught with problems, the least of which seems to be Bauman’s missing legs. Stronger tracks that tumultuous relationship during the first year of Bauman’s recovery.
It’s a fantastic movie, too. Gyllenhaal is his usual amazing self, sporting one of those Boston accents that doesn’t sound like a caricature, and hopefully Stronger will merit him the Oscar nomination he has been robbed of three times in recent years (Prisoners, End of Watch, Nightcrawler). Given the circumstances, it’s a surprisingly understated performance — there’s never a need to lay it on thick, and Gyllenhaal seems to understand that. Likewise, Tatiana Maslany is terrific as Hurley, a girlfriend who is supportive … to an extent. Hurley sympathizes with Bauman’s pain and understands his limitations, but she doesn’t allow him to use his injuries as an excuse to fail in other parts of his life. It’s a suitably complicated relationship challenged further by the relationship between Bauman and his mother, a well-meaning woman who also wants to ignore the psychological damage of the event and, instead, pressure her son into being a symbol of the city in the wake of the tragedy.
There are a lot of emotional strings at play in Stronger, and Gordon Green deftly plucks them out while keeping to a fairly conventional biopic formula. I worried, initially, that it’d be two hours of Erin Hurley battling with her own guilt, divided between her responsibility to Bauman and her need to move on with her own life, but this is not that movie. It’s a superbly acted and honest exploration of a real relationship in turmoil, and what it takes for two people to come to grips with tragedy and somehow move past it, whether together or apart.